What Was Shakespeare Really Like?

For his ninetieth birthday, Sir Stanley Wells, considered one of the world’s greatest authorities on William Shakespeare, was asked to deliver four lectures to answer the following questions:

What was Shakespeare like?

How did he write his plays?

What does the body of his work tell us about his personality?

What made him laugh?

The pandemic having prevented him from delivering the lectures in person, he presented them online instead, and at age 93, has now gathered them together in What Was Shakespeare Really Like? (Cambridge University Press, 164 pages.)  

It is a very brief book (a quarter of which is taken up with a long Epilogue that recounts Wells’ eight decades of personal, professional and scholarly involvement with all things Shakespearean.) It is also inconclusive. How could it not be? William Shakespeare, unlike other historic figures, didn’t write about himself in intimate letters or private diaries.

But his contemporaries did write about him. And there is a public record. There are also clues in his plays and poems.

Wells roots his picture of the playwright and poet in evidence and logic, and he’s too erudite to be anything but modest in his conjectures – which is much the appeal of this book.

What was Shakespeare like? William Shakespeare was popular, prosperous, respectable and well-liked by those who knew him, but he was also very private, and his works “surely reflect a life of inner turmoil.”

How did he write his plays? He was an assiduous reader, and took all his plots from various works of literature, both ancient and contemporary.  “In some plays, such as Henry V and Antony and Cleopatra, it’s clear that he had a big book – Holinshed’s Chronicles, Plutarch’s Lives – open before him as he wrote.”

Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed not to be published; only half were during his lifetime, and he apparently had no involvement in their publication.

He wrote his plays with individual actors in mind for specific roles. “He knew his colleagues’ strengths and their limitations. “ For Richard Burbage, his leading actor and co-founder in 1594 of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theater company, he wrote Romeo when Burbage was 27 ,  then Hamlet when Burbage was 33; and, as Burbage grew older, “Shakespeare provided for him star roles that did not require him to appear youthful.” None of the parts Burbage played required that he sing — because he was a lousy singer.

“Though he displays great confidence in the staying power of his leading players he learned to be considerate to them too – whereas Richard III has little respite during the course of his play, the heroes of later plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear all have time off in their plays’ later stages for a rest – or even a short nap – to help them to summon up strength to play their closing scenes.”

What does the body of his work tell us about his personality? Shakespeare’s personality – by which Wells especially means his private life —  is more likely to be revealed in his 154 sonnets rather than his plays, Wells argues, because the poems were written in the first person.  Most likely, that is, IF they are autobiographical. That’s a big if; we don’t know that they were.

If they were – and Wells spends time explaining why he thinks that some were – they reveal that Shakespeare was “at various times of his life caught up in emotional and sexual entanglements with more than one male.” In Sonnet 144, for example, Shakespeare writes of  “two loves I have of comfort and despair” – which Wells interprets as the poet having two lovers, a handsome man with the personality of an angel and a devilish but sexually enticing woman. “If we read this poem autobiographically then we must unequivocally regard Shakespeare as both heterosexually adulterous and bisexual.”

What made him laugh? Shakespeare was fond of puns and wordplay. He used anecdotes delivered by his characters to reveal  — in their garrulousness, or lack of self-awareness, or super self-awareness – how comic they are. He put his characters in situations of “contrived discomfiture” or in which they are tricked into making fools of themselves such as in “Twelfth Night” when Malvolio is fooled into thinking that Countess Olivia is in love with him.  He often has a witty character deflate a pompous one. Wells calls Hamlet “the most comic of the tragedies” with the title character using his ”mordant wit to pierce through the bland compromises of Claudius, to diffuse Polonius’s sycophancy, and to satirize Osric’s affectations….”

“What Was Shakespeare Really Like?” is a fun and sometimes fascinating exercise, but, as its author tacitly acknowledges, not a vital one. The important question about Shakespeare is: “What is it that makes so many people think of Shakespeare as the greatest of writers?” And that question has an answer — his craftsmanship, his powers of linguistic expression, his ability to give voice to a wide range of characters, his understanding of human nature.

“We can hope best to know and understand him not through an account of the material facts of his life,” Well writes, “but through the writings, which record an imaginative and spiritual journey more vividly and profoundly than those of any other writer.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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