Seeking the real Bard of Stratford

Long before we had UFOs appearing, Amelia Earhart disappearing, and Elvis reappearing, the (alleged) mystery of William Shakespeare fascinated the world.

Did a commoner from Stratford-on-Avon with a few years of public schooling really write some of the greatest works in the English language? Could he have given voice to Hamlet and Lady MacBeth, Falstaff and Richard III, Romeo and Juliet? Was he just a front man for an aristocrat who wanted anonymity?

Today is the Bard's birthday, and perhaps the best nod to him is to say: Take another bow, Bill, we know you're the man.

Yes, he is the author of those sonnets and plays (well, mostly, see below). And he's neither quite the stuffed shirt with the starched collar seen in the famous bust nor the love-struck romantic of the movie "Shakespeare in Love."

He's a more complex and elusive character than either stereotype. But if you had to pin one image on him, it might that of a "working stiff," a man who's got not a little in common with Thomas Edison's line that "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

I cite as authority the latest book from Shakespeare authority Jonathan Bate, "The Genius of Shakespeare" (Oxford University Press, 1998).

The key thing to remember about Shakespeare, Mr. Bate says, is that he was a man of the theater and, as such, a collaborator:

"He did jobbing work, fulfilling particular commissions as well as creating plays of his own. He contributed to plays which had different scenes written by different dramatists. He revised other writers' work. He wrote fluently but did occasionally 'blot a line' or have a second thought. He did not own his play manuscripts: they were the property of whichever acting company he was writing for.... Such a Shakespeare is utterly unlike the Romantic image of authorship in which the poet works alone in his study, is answerable only to his own inspiration, and cherishes his manuscripts."

But how did this commoner write so well about kings and royal intrigues? Says Bate: "Courts are things you can learn about from books and gossip....

"What is much harder to imagine is an aristocrat ... reproducing the slang of the common tavern and the intonations of the low-born which are as characteristic of Shakespeare's plays as any polished mimickings of courtly language."

Most of us find in Shakespeare's plays more questions than answers. They are mysteries worthy of exploring again and again. But whether they were written by a certain hard-working playwright-poet-actor from Stratford is no mystery to me.

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