Bio-degradable Shakespeare

While looking through playbills for past Shakespeare Theatre Company productions, I came upon a mystery that involves a big flip-flop, and no, I’m not talking about a size 13 beach sandal.

The mystery is about something one would think STC takes very seriously, namely, the true identity of William Shakespeare.

There is, sir, a doubt

The novelist B. Travers once said, “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” For many years the playbills for STC productions reflected that philosophy. From 1986-2007, only one playbill, in 1995, contained a Shakespeare biography.

Another Shakespeare biography appeared in playbills from 2008 to 2014. Remarkably, that bio raised doubts about whether the poet-playwright was the same Shakespeare who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. The one-page text began by observing:

No man’s life has been the subject of more speculation than William Shakespeare’s. While Shakespearean scholars have dedicated their lives to the search for evidence, the truth is that no one really knows what the truth is. [Emphasis added].

After a brief account of the Stratford man’s birth, marriage, and children, the bio stated:

What we do not know is how the young Shakespeare came to travel to London and how he first came to the stage. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that in the years between 1582 and 1592 someone calling himself William Shakespeare became involved in the London theatre scene and was a principal actor with one of several repertory companies [Emphasis added].

This bio began appearing in STC playbills in 2008.

The concluding paragraph described doubts about Shakespeare’s identity in even more direct terms:

In the 1800s, his plays were so popular that many refused to believe that an actor from Stratford had written them. To this day some believe that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays; others argue that Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, was the man. Still others contend that Sir Walter Raleigh or Christopher Marlowe penned the lines attributed to Shakespeare. Whether the plays were written by Shakespeare the man or Shakespeare the myth, it is clear that no other playwright has made such a significant and lasting contribution to the English language [Emphasis added].

In 2014 much of this bio suddenly melted into thin air.

He’s a disease that must be cut away

During the 2014-2015 season, STC produced three Shakespeare plays: both parts of Henry the Fourth in March and April 2014, and As You Like It in October and November 2014.

In the middle of that season, STC’s bio of Shakespeare was heavily edited. It went from describing doubts about the playwright’s identity (April 2014) to expressing no doubts (October 2014).

During the 2014-2015 season, STC’s bio of Shakespeare was heavily edited.

Like a surgeon with a scalpel, the editor(s) removed all traces of uncertainty about Shakespeare’s identity, deleting from the first paragraph the phrases “the truth is that no one really knows what the truth is” and “someone calling himself William Shakespeare,” and adding “we know a great deal of information about Shakespeare’s life—far more than that of any of his contemporaries.” The editor(s), as if excising a tumor, also cut out the bulk of the last paragraph which named alternate candidates.

Here’s a redline version of the edits:

More than one-fourth of the previous bio disappeared. Ever since, STC playbills have included the no-doubt-about-it bio.

Sir, it is a mystery

What explains STC’s flip-flop? And why did it wait seven years to do it?

I noticed the altered bio in 2014, but only recently discovered what, at least in part, likely caused the change. It has to do with events that occurred in September 2014, just before the revised text appeared in October 2014.

What trust is in these times?

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, is a staunch defender of traditional Shakespeare biography. The Trust owns the house believed to be Shakespeare’s birthplace, which each year attracts hundreds of thousands visitors and generates millions of dollars.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the Trust would judge a playbill of a major U.S. theater company raising issues about Shakespeare’s true identity—doubts that strike at the core of the Trust’s raison d’être. And it seems likely that the Trust, if it had the opportunity, would do something about it.

In the summer of 2014, the Trust sent a team across the pond on a ‘Shakespeare on the Road’ tour. Here’s how the Trust described it:

In July and August, our team visited a range of Shakespeare festivals across the length and breadth of the US (with one notable Canadian incursion). We touched down on the 4th July at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City and ended in Washington DC in early September. Over 63 days, we traveled over 10,000 miles (mostly by road), saw 42 Shakespeare productions and interviewed hundreds of the people who – year in, year out – make Shakespeare happen across the continent.

The material we gathered will be used for multiple outcomes: podcasts, radio and online documentaries, a co-authored book and solo-authored chapters and case studies. The road trip was mapped on this digital platform with roughly one hundred interviews, photos and short blogs to give a sense of the journey as it unfolded.

STC was the Washington, DC theater the Trust’s team visited in September 2014.

Around this same time, at an event in Washington to which 200 potential patrons were invited, the Trust launched Shakespeare’s Birthplace America, “a not-for-profit foundation that promotes and supports the works of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the United States.”

The Trust’s team likely would have cringed at the bio in STC’s then current playbill, which included phrases such as someone calling himself William Shakespeare and named alternate candidates such as De Vere and Marlowe (neither of whom were born in Stratford-upon-Avon).

It’s difficult to believe that the Trust wouldn’t have discussed the bio with STC in September 2014, or even before. STC revised the playbill for its very next production, in October 2014.

The timing and surgical nature of the edits—to delete any notion that Shakespeare was anyone but the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon—suggests the Trust played a role in the bio’s revision.

STC, of course, has the right to change the content of its playbills and has no obligation to give the reasons.

In this case, however, for the sake of its credibility, STC might consider explaining its flip-flop, so patrons can understand the merits of why, after seven years, it suddenly stopped believing that doubts regarding Shakespeare’s identity were worth mentioning.

Another choice would be for STC to return to its earlier practice, in line with the B. Travers school of thought, and drop the Shakespeare bio from its playbills altogether.

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