Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare “invented the human.” But the reverse is also true: humans invented Shakespeare.
And they have done him wrong.
Take, for instance, how scholars have criticized Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
For decades they concluded that the great playwright made significant blunders in the play. However, it was the scholars, not Shakespeare, who erred.
The Winter’s Tale is the only play in which Shakespeare refers to another artist by name. In Act Five, Scene 2, a character describes Hermione’s statue as
a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape [ . . . ]
Scholars accused Shakespeare of ignorance since, according to them, Romano was an architect and painter, but not a sculptor.
The scholars were mistaken. In 1873, Karl Elze set things right. In his Essays On Shakespeare, Elze showed that Giorgio Vasari, an artist and biographer of other 16th century artists, described Romano as a sculptor in the first edition of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550.
I was thus surprised some weeks ago to find the Wikipedia entry for Romano flat-out stating that Shakespeare incorrectly called him a sculptor (the entry has since been corrected).
Did Shakespeare flunk geography?
Also wrong were scholarly conclusions that Shakespeare messed up the geography of The Winter Tale’s setting by giving Bohemia a coastline. As Richard Paul Roe explains in his brilliant book, Shakespeare’s Guide To Italy, the political boundaries of Bohemia once included territory adjacent to the Adriatic Sea.
And that’s not all.
Scholars also said The Winter’s Tale incorrectly places the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when it’s actually located on the mainland of Greece.
However, the short scene (Act III, Scene 1) that gives rise to this issue takes place after the characters have already visited the oracle. As Roe explains, the characters in that scene have returned from the oracle and are back in Sicily, and the “temple” they are describing is the Temple of Segesta, not the Oracle of Delphi.
The pitfall of biographical assumptions about Shakespeare
Traditional Shakespeare scholarship assumes the Bard was a man from Stratford-upon-Avon whose education was limited to grammar school and who never stepped outside England. This helps explain his “mistakes” about Romano, Bohemia, and Delphi.
These assumptions are part of the story line about the Stratford man, which also has him marrying an older woman after getting her pregnant. Stephen Greenblatt, in Will in the World, thus writes:
Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he was eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and a writer. Most couples, he may have told himself, are mismatched, even couples marrying for love; you should never marry in haste; a young man should not marry an older woman; a marriage under compulsion—“wedlock force”—is a hell. And perhaps, beyond these, he told himself, in imagining Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, that marital intimacy is dangerous, that the very dream is a threat.
Shakespeare may have told himself too that his marriage to Anne [Hathaway] was doomed from the beginning. […]
Greenblatt is inventing Shakespeare. Nothing in the Stratford man’s known biography supports how Greenblatt reads his mind on the subject of marriage and then grafts the results onto The Winter’s Tale and other plays.
These examples of traditional scholarly views of The Winter’s Tale can make one reasonably skeptical of orthodox assumptions about who wrote Shakespeare. Indeed, such skepticism is rising. The University of London has begun offering an online course, “Introduction to Who Wrote Shakespeare,” which challenges those assumptions.
At present, The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare has over 4,000 signatories, which include Shakespearean actors Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Irons, and Michael York, and retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens.
In years to come, as the Shakespeare whom humans have invented continues to be challenged and undone, one can expect discussion and analysis of the plays to be less tied to the biography of the Stratford man.
One small example: I recently attended a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Folger Theatre, and was pleased to see that the playbill repeated none of the assertions about Shakespeare’s “mistakes.” In fact, the playbill provided no biographical information about Shakespeare at all.