Is Shakespeare Dead?, by Mark Twain

IV

Conjectures

The historians “suppose” that Shakespeare attended the Free School in Stratford from the time he was seven years old till he was thirteen. There is no EVIDENCE in existence that he ever went to school at all.

The historians “infer” that he got his Latin in that school — the school which they “suppose” he attended.

They “suppose” his father’s declining fortunes made it necessary for him to leave the school they supposed he attended, and get to work and help support his parents and their ten children. But there is no evidence that he ever entered or returned from the school they suppose he attended.

They “suppose” he assisted his father in the butchering business; and that, being only a boy, he didn’t have to do full-grown butchering, but only slaughtering calves. Also, that whenever he killed a calf he made a high-flown speech over it. This supposition rests upon the testimony of a man who wasn’t there at the time; a man who got it from a man who could have been there, but did not say whether he was nor not; and neither of them thought to mention it for decades, and decades, and decades, and two more decades after Shakespeare’s death (until old age and mental decay had refreshed and vivified their memories). They hadn’t two facts in stock about the long-dead distinguished citizen, but only just the one: he slaughtered calves and broke into oratory while he was at it. Curious. They had only one fact, yet the distinguished citizen had spent twenty-six years in that little town — just half his lifetime. However, rightly viewed, it was the most important fact, indeed almost the only important fact, of Shakespeare’s life in Stratford. Rightly viewed. For experience is an author’s most valuable asset; experience is the thing that puts the muscle and the breath and the warm blood into the book he writes. Rightly viewed, calf-butchering accounts for “Titus Andronicus,” the only play — ain’t it? — that the Stratford Shakespeare ever wrote; and yet it is the only one everybody tried to chouse him out of, the Baconians included.

The historians find themselves “justified in believing” that the young Shakespeare poached upon Sir Thomas Lucy’s deer preserves and got haled before that magistrate for it. But there is no shred of respectworthy evidence that anything of the kind happened.

The historians, having argued the thing that MIGHT have happened into the thing that DID happen, found no trouble in turning Sir Thomas Lucy into Mr. Justice Shallow. They have long ago convinced the world — on surmise and without trustworthy evidence — that Shallow IS Sir Thomas.

The next addition to the young Shakespeare’s Stratford history comes easy. The historian builds it out of the surmised deer-steeling, and the surmised trial before the magistrate, and the surmised vengeance-prompted satire upon the magistrate in the play: result, the young Shakespeare was a wild, wild, wild, oh, SUCH a wild young scamp, and that gratuitous slander is established for all time! It is the very way Professor Osborn and I built the colossal skeleton brontosaur that stands fifty-seven feet long and sixteen feet high in the Natural History Museum, the awe and admiration of all the world, the stateliest skeleton that exists on the planet. We had nine bones, and we built the rest of him out of plaster of Paris. We ran short of plaster of Paris, or we’d have built a brontosaur that could sit down beside the Stratford Shakespeare and none but an expert could tell which was biggest or contained the most plaster.

Shakespeare pronounced “Venus and Adonis” “the first heir of his invention,” apparently implying that it was his first effort at literary composition. He should not have said it. It has been an embarrassment to his historians these many, many years. They have to make him write that graceful and polished and flawless and beautiful poem before he escaped from Stratford and his family — 1586 or ‘87 — age, twenty-two, or along there; because within the next five years he wrote five great plays, and could not have found time to write another line.

It is sorely embarrassing. If he began to slaughter calves, and poach deer, and rollick around, and learn English, at the earliest likely moment — say at thirteen, when he was supposably wretched from that school where he was supposably storing up Latin for future literary use — he had his youthful hands full, and much more than full. He must have had to put aside his Warwickshire dialect, which wouldn’t be understood in London, and study English very hard. Very hard indeed; incredibly hard, almost, if the result of that labor was to be the smooth and rounded and flexible and letter-perfect English of the “Venus and Adonis” in the space of ten years; and at the same time learn great and fine and unsurpassable literary FORM.

However, it is “conjectured” that he accomplished all this and more, much more: learned law and its intricacies; and the complex procedure of the law-courts; and all about soldiering, and sailoring, and the manners and customs and ways of royal courts and aristocratic society; and likewise accumulated in his one head every kind of knowledge the learned then possessed, and every kind of humble knowledge possessed by the lowly and the ignorant; and added thereto a wider and more intimate knowledge of the world’s great literatures, ancient and modern, than was possessed by any other man of his time — for he was going to make brilliant and easy and admiration-compelling use of these splendid treasures the moment he got to London. And according to the surmisers, that is what he did. Yes, although there was no one in Stratford able to teach him these things, and no library in the little village to dig them out of. His father could not read, and even the surmisers surmise that he did not keep a library.

It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers through being for a time the CLERK OF A STRATFORD COURT; just as a bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Bering Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercises of that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a “trot-line” Sundays. But the surmise is damaged by the fact that there is no evidence — and not even tradition — that the young Shakespeare was ever clerk of a law-court.

It is further surmised that the young Shakespeare accumulated his law-treasures in the first years of his sojourn in London, through “amusing himself” by learning book-law in his garret and by picking up lawyer-talk and the rest of it through loitering about the law-courts and listening. But it is only surmise; there is no EVIDENCE that he ever did either of those things. They are merely a couple of chunks of plaster of Paris.

There is a legend that he got his bread and butter by holding horses in front of the London theaters, mornings and afternoons. Maybe he did. If he did, it seriously shortened his law-study hours and his recreation-time in the courts. In those very days he was writing great plays, and needed all the time he could get. The horse-holding legend ought to be strangled; it too formidably increases the historian’s difficulty in accounting for the young Shakespeare’s erudition — an erudition which he was acquiring, hunk by hunk and chunk by chunk, every day in those strenuous times, and emptying each day’s catch into next day’s imperishable drama.

He had to acquire a knowledge of war at the same time; and a knowledge of soldier-people and sailor-people and their ways and talk; also a knowledge of some foreign lands and their languages: for he was daily emptying fluent streams of these various knowledges, too, into his dramas. How did he acquire these rich assets?

In the usual way: by surmise. It is SURMISED that he traveled in Italy and Germany and around, and qualified himself to put their scenic and social aspects upon paper; that he perfected himself in French, Italian, and Spanish on the road; that he went in Leicester’s expedition to the Low Countries, as soldier or sutler or something, for several months or years — or whatever length of time a surmiser needs in his business — and thus became familiar with soldiership and soldier-ways and soldier-talk and generalship and general-ways and general-talk, and seamanship and sailor-ways and sailor-talk.

Maybe he did all these things, but I would like to know who held the horses in the mean time; and who studied the books in the garret; and who frolicked in the law-courts for recreation. Also, who did the call-boying and the play-acting.

For he became a call-boy; and as early as ‘93 he became a “vagabond” — the law’s ungentle term for an unlisted actor; and in ‘94 a “regular” and properly and officially listed member of that (in those days) lightly valued and not much respected profession.

Right soon thereafter he became a stockholder in two theaters, and manager of them. Thenceforward he was a busy and flourishing business man, and was raking in money with both hands for twenty years. Then in a noble frenzy of poetic inspiration he wrote his one poem — his only poem, his darling — and laid him down and died:

Good friend for Iesus sake forbeare To digg the dust encloased heare: Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones And curst be he yt moves my bones.

He was probably dead when he wrote it. Still, this is only conjecture. We have only circumstantial evidence. Internal evidence.

Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/is_shakespeare_dead/chapter4.html

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