Is Shakespeare Dead?, by Mark Twain

XIII

Isn’t it odd, when you think of it, that you may list all the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotchmen of modern times, clear back to the first Tudors — a list containing five hundred names, shall we say? — and you can go to the histories, biographies, and cyclopedias and learn the particulars of the lives of every one of them. Every one of them except one — the most famous, the most renowned — by far the most illustrious of them all — Shakespeare! You can get the details of the lives of all the celebrated ecclesiastics in the list; all the celebrated tragedians, comedians, singers, dancers, orators, judges, lawyers, poets, dramatists, historians, biographers, editors, inventors, reformers, statesmen, generals, admirals, discoverers, prize-fighters, murderers, pirates, conspirators, horse-jockeys, bunco-steerers, misers, swindlers, explorers, adventurers by land and sea, bankers, financiers, astronomers, naturalists, claimants, impostors, chemists, biologists, geologists, philologists, college presidents and professors, architects, engineers, painters, sculptors, politicians, agitators, rebels, revolutionists, patriots, demagogues, clowns, cooks, freaks, philosophers, burglars, highwaymen, journalists, physicians, surgeons — you can get the life-histories of all of them but ONE. Just ONE— the most extraordinary and the most celebrated of them all — Shakespeare!

You may add to the list the thousand celebrated persons furnished by the rest of Christendom in the past four centuries, and you can find out the life-histories of all those people, too. You will then have listed fifteen hundred celebrities, and you can trace the authentic life-histories of the whole of them. Save one — far and away the most colossal prodigy of the entire accumulation — Shakespeare! About him you can find out NOTHING. Nothing of even the slightest importance. Nothing worth the trouble of stowing away in your memory. Nothing that even remotely indicates that he was ever anything more than a distinctly commonplace person — a manager, an actor of inferior grade, a small trader in a small village that did not regard him as a person of any consequence, and had forgotten all about him before he was fairly cold in his grave. We can go to the records and find out the life-history of every renowned RACE-HORSE of modern times — but not Shakespeare’s! There are many reasons why, and they have been furnished in cart-loads (of guess and conjecture) by those troglodytes; but there is one that is worth all the rest of the reasons put together, and is abundantly sufficient all by itself — HE HADN’T ANY HISTORY TO RECORD. There is no way of getting around that deadly fact. And no sane way has yet been discovered of getting around its formidable significance.

Its quite plain significance — to any but those thugs (I do not use the term unkindly) is, that Shakespeare had no prominence while he lived, and none until he had been dead two or three generations. The Plays enjoyed high fame from the beginning; and if he wrote them it seems a pity the world did not find it out. He ought to have explained that he was the author, and not merely a NOM DE PLUME for another man to hide behind. If he had been less intemperately solicitous about his bones, and more solicitous about his Works, it would have been better for his good name, and a kindness to us. The bones were not important. They will moulder away, they will turn to dust, but the Works will endure until the last sun goes down.

Mark Twain.

P.S. MARCH 25. About two months ago I was illuminating this Autobiography with some notions of mine concerning the Bacon–Shakespeare controversy, and I then took occasion to air the opinion that the Stratford Shakespeare was a person of no public consequence or celebrity during his lifetime, but was utterly obscure and unimportant. And not only in great London, but also in the little village where he was born, where he lived a quarter of a century, and where he died and was buried. I argued that if he had been a person of any note at all, aged villagers would have had much to tell about him many and many a year after his death, instead of being unable to furnish inquirers a single fact connected with him. I believed, and I still believe, that if he had been famous, his notoriety would have lasted as long as mine has lasted in my native village out in Missouri. It is a good argument, a prodigiously strong one, and most formidable one for even the most gifted and ingenious and plausible Stratfordolator to get around or explain away. Today a Hannibal COURIER-POST of recent date has reached me, with an article in it which reinforces my contention that a really celebrated person cannot be forgotten in his village in the short space of sixty years. I will make an extract from it:

Hannibal, as a city, may have many sins to answer for, but ingratitude is not one of them, or reverence for the great men she has produced, and as the years go by her greatest son, Mark Twain, or S. L. Clemens as a few of the unlettered call him, grows in the estimation and regard of the residents of the town he made famous and the town that made him famous. His name is associated with every old building that is torn down to make way for the modern structures demanded by a rapidly growing city, and with every hill or cave over or through which he might by any possibility have roamed, while the many points of interest which he wove into his stories, such as Holiday Hill, Jackson’s Island, or Mark Twain Cave, are now monuments to his genius. Hannibal is glad of any opportunity to do him honor as he had honored her.

So it has happened that the “old timers” who went to school with Mark or were with him on some of his usual escapades have been honored with large audiences whenever they were in a reminiscent mood and condescended to tell of their intimacy with the ordinary boy who came to be a very extraordinary humorist and whose every boyish act is now seen to have been indicative of what was to come. Like Aunt Becky and Mrs. Clemens, they can now see that Mark was hardly appreciated when he lived here and that the things he did as a boy and was whipped for doing were not all bad, after all. So they have been in no hesitancy about drawing out the bad things he did as well as the good in their efforts to get a “Mark Twain” story, all incidents being viewed in the light of his present fame, until the volume of “Twainiana” is already considerable and growing in proportion as the “old timers” drop away and the stories are retold second and third hand by their descendants. With some seventy-three years and living in a villa instead of a house, he is a fair target, and let him incorporate, copyright, or patent himself as he will, there are some of his “works” that will go swooping up Hannibal chimneys as long as graybeards gather about the fires and begin with, “I’ve heard father tell,” or possibly, “Once when I.” The Mrs. Clemens referred to is my mother — WAS my mother.

And here is another extract from a Hannibal paper, of date twenty days ago:

Miss Becca Blankenship died at the home of William Dickason, 408 Rock Street, at 2.30 o’clock yesterday afternoon, aged 72 years. The deceased was a sister of “Huckleberry Finn,” one of the famous characters in Mark Twain’s TOM SAWYER. She had been a member of the Dickason family — the housekeeper — for nearly forty-five years, and was a highly respected lady. For the past eight years she had been an invalid, but was as well cared for by Mr. Dickason and his family as if she had been a near relative. She was a member of the Park Methodist Church and a Christian woman.

I remember her well. I have a picture of her in my mind which was graven there, clear and sharp and vivid, sixty-three years ago. She was at that time nine years old, and I was about eleven. I remember where she stood, and how she looked; and I can still see her bare feet, her bare head, her brown face, and her short tow-linen frock. She was crying. What it was about I have long ago forgotten. But it was the tears that preserved the picture for me, no doubt. She was a good child, I can say that for her. She knew me nearly seventy years ago. Did she forget me, in the course of time? I think not. If she had lived in Stratford in Shakespeare’s time, would she have forgotten him? Yes. For he was never famous during his lifetime, he was utterly obscure in Stratford, and there wouldn’t be any occasion to remember him after he had been dead a week.

“Injun Joe,” “Jimmy Finn,” and “General Gaines” were prominent and very intemperate ne’er-do-weels in Hannibal two generations ago. Plenty of grayheads there remember them to this day, and can tell you about them. Isn’t it curious that two “town drunkards” and one half-breed loafer should leave behind them, in a remote Missourian village, a fame a hundred times greater and several hundred times more particularized in the matter of definite facts than Shakespeare left behind him in the village where he had lived the half of his lifetime?

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05