Will the Real Will Shakespeare. . .

please stand up? (Please stand up.)

Having just finished Stacy Schiff's astonishing biography of Cleopatra, it occurs to me that we know much more about an ancient queen who lived 2000 years ago than we do about the much-closer-in-history William Shakespeare. It's easy to parrot the myths and half-truths: he was gay or bisexual; he had a mistress (or mister) in London; he played the role of Hamlet's ghost on stage; he was caught poaching on a wealthy man's estate; he didn't actually write the plays. Just for the record, I'm a staunch Stratfordian--I believe he certainly did write the plays--but I won't be touching that discussion with a ten-foot jousting pole.

But I am fascinated by our contemporary re-imaginings of a man who is, apart from his words, practically unknowable. In Kathryn Johnson's The Gentleman Poet, the author imagines Shakespeare as a passenger on a ship that sets sail for Virginia but ends up shipwrecked in Bermuda--thereby providing the inspiration for The Tempest.


Johnson's Shakespeare is a cagey personality with possibly Catholic sympathies in a Protestant realm. He's prickly, temperamental, and highly sensitive to criticism about his work, but reveals a sentimental streak towards the young protagonist, Elizabeth. And while a fascinating character, he isn't quite the Will I imagine.

On the other end of the spectrum is Shakespeare's film persona as portrayed by Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. Fiennes' Will is young, ardent, and passionate; both lover and artist, he's a soulful Renaissance hottie who ends up playing his own creation, Romeo, on the stage of the Globe.

And while I love this movie to no end, I have a hard time believing in Fiennes' Will. I'd like to, but I suspect the real Shakespeare poured nearly all of his passion into his work, and was a cooler, shrewder, and much more pragmatic figure than the one Fiennes gives us.

Come September, we'll see yet another interpretation of the Bard in Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, a movie that sets the authorship question against the backdrop of Elizabethan political intrigue. The movie posits Edward de Vere as the "true" author of the works, with Shakespeare providing a handy cover identity.

Let me just say that this movie goes against everything I believe about my literary hero. But I still can't wait to see it.

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