Book Review: Who Killed William Shakespeare?

Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means

by Simon Andrew Stirling

When I first cracked open my copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? and gave it my usual pre-reading examination, the exercise gave time for a flood of memories to wash through my mind: reading the plays in high school and university, of course, but also how teachers and professors taught them, what we discussed on the side, the high or low passions, variety of angles we came from with our comments and questions. It occurred to me that I, neither anti-Shakespeare nor aficionado, not only know very little about his life, but also his death. There were no memories of discussions or even lectures relating to his demise.

17738852With this in mind I went to the Internet to see if I could learn more about this angle—or, more particularly, to see what exactly everyone else knew that I didn’t. I was in for a bit of a surprise because nowhere did I see even any allusions to homicide. I picked up lots of typhoid mentions, especially connected to the time in which he lived. Other possibilities included alcoholism, though with the supporting evidence of a “merry meeting” after which the playwright died, this seems a reach, given the long-term nature of this disease. Nevertheless, for whatever the condition speculated, many posters seemed to agree that Shakespeare knew he was seriously ill. Shaky signature, two wills within weeks of one another, etc.

Elizabethan England is not my chosen era of great study, but I did know it was a dangerous time in which to live, especially if you were the wrong religion. Prosecution for the crime of illegal worship was swift and consequences horrible—simply describing them out loud is painful to the mind. Therefore I wondered why no one seemed to consider that politics was just as much a hazard to one’s health as any disease on the rampage. Many are familiar with the need for Shakespeare to have written to please the queen; a civil war was looming and religious intolerance was rampant—all elements that continue to exist in our world today and so even if from a distance, most have some understanding of it.

To be fair, delving into those murky waters is challenging, to say the least, and, as Stirling quotes Shakespearean scholar Schoenbaum, “What we would not give for a single personal letter!” or even “one page of a diary!” Alas, this is not a luxury available, making the parts and the sum of Stirling’s research all the more impressive.

shakespeare cover image comediesOpening with reference to the disappearance of the real Shakespeare to be replaced by a mythical figure, Stirling shifts to the personal Shakespeare and various interpretations of his life and legacy. Specifically he challenges the notion that nothing is known about the playwright and commences the laying out of his research, which over the course of the book shows how history was in the process of being re-written when he still lived, in the 18th century and even today when Shakespeare continues to be celebrated as what the author refers to as a “trademark.”

But why would anyone need to re-invent who Shakespeare was? What needed to be covered up? Why would anyone murder him? And how could they get away with it? While part of the mystery rests within the who, readers shall not be let down when within the first section a suspect is revealed—in fact, the book’s blurb provides this information:

He was (indeed) honest, and of an open and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped. . .

Like an investigator, Stirling turns to the method of collecting evidence to prove the means, motive and opportunity; without such, “knowing” is insufficient to support a successful criminal proceeding. Other elements are required, however: the presence of reasonable doubt as to the suspect’s guilt might wash away the strength of those three aspects. In three sections, titled after these elements, the author explores in great detail avenues of the crime, including what led to it and subsequent events.

Following an author’s note is the “Preamble: The Apotheosis of Shakespeare,” designed to provide background information for readers before they are led into the “Means,” which wastes little time in identifying central players and their significance to main events. Scholarly in nature and non-linear, the narrative’s density may initially have a somewhat disconcerting affect, though readers may rest assured they will settle quickly into Stirling’s style: direct and smooth, the book reads like a mystery—a literary mystery in which clues to stage and governmental politics are contained in the plays themselves. Personal significance, such as motives and history behind particular lines are explained in a way so fluid that readers move in and out of events as if they had personal connections.

The amount of research that went into the book surely must have been staggering, though Stirling lays it all out in such a way we tend not to think of it as pieces fitted together. It is as if he has pieced together a puzzle but we cannot see the lines; rather there is an image before us so magnificent, its contours and colors matched so brilliantly it wipes away understanding or awareness of the labor required to perform the task.

For example, Henry Wallis’s painting, A Sculptor’s Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1617, exhibited in 1857, provides some interesting insight; the author utilizes, amongst other knowledge, Greek myth and another painting to show how the artist drops heavy hints about events that led to an assault and the assailant’s role in supervising the funerary monument:

The Greek myth recalls the ‘merry meeting’ [and a] strained epitaph game—the ‘Rhymes’ which, according to Michael Drayton, who was there, [were made] with Shakespeare[; his opponent became] angry when he was ‘out-gone’. Hercules had been similarly incapable of controlling his rage ‘as a hero should’. He attacked the river god. Achelous turned himself into a snake and then a bull. Hercules wrestled the bull to the ground and tore off one of its horns, mutilating the river god’s brow.

It is moments such as this, laid out so efficiently, with such artistry and accessibility that Stirling draws readers’ sustained attention and focus to what he shows us, and creates a gripping drama that captures and carries us on to the next scene, and the next, and the next. There are many familiar names—Catesby (descendant of the first in the “Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge/rulyth all England under a hogge”), Throckmorton, Marlowe, Percy, Cobham, to name a few—that weave across time and consciousness, reminding us of the myriad connections between people and events, within their own times and others’.

For this reason, I found it helpful about midway through the book to return to the author’s “Preamble” in order to refresh my own recollections and re-connect what I was reading with what Stirling had provided in this first section. This is by no means a shortcoming of any sort on the book or author’s part, and in fact I found that section very helpful to return to on occasion to re-capture links I’d lost track of.

sculptorThere indeed is a great deal to absorb: Elizabethan and Jacobean politics, much of which (in education) stays hidden behind the curtain of “golden age” history; family and religious history and tensions; theatre and its obligations to the Crown; art and literature; government intrusion; family feuds; crime and punishment—it is as if the writing of the book required an author who is in part psychologist as well as detective, his forensic talents extending across all of the above to provide an examination of how this society affected one man—and all of us.

Though there are several segments I connected to more—including the portion in which the author examines Wallis’s painting—what I appreciated most about the book is Stirling’s honest and fair treatment of William Shakespeare. Popular culture tends to view him as upright and formal, laughing in disbelief at wooden-jaw caricatures or amazement at his appearance in other works of literature, acting out such ordinary human behavior as impulsiveness or possessing sexuality.

Here we find a man who is real, in a society and era hostile to who he was, and governed by those who would destroy him. He responds to many instances in ways we might criticize or copy; discussing the reality of his person honors him far more than a created image that falsifies the man. Stirling, too would have it no other way: “During the course of our investigation, a picture of Will Shakespeare will emerge which differs from the familiar, squeaky-clean image of the Bard. There will be no sweeping of vital evidence under the carpet. We owe him that.”

If you are a Shakespeare “fan” or not, familiar but not well-versed, lover of history or plainly inquisitive—and for many other reasons, this book is for you. It is a smooth read that will persuade your curiosity out into the open, sharpen the senses and bring into the light some painful truths about our own histories. As the author writes, the truth we owe Shakespeare must be brought out of hiding, as does that we owe to our children.

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays
Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays–Artist Unknown (in the manner of Thomas Stothard)

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Simon Andrew Stirling is also the author of  The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero.

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The blogger was gifted a copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? with no expectation of review. 

All images save book cover from Wikimedia Commons. 

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