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Author: Mark Twain
From: Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion.
Extended essay published as a book. Ostensibly an essay arguing that William Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him, this 21,350-word book originated in Clemens’s autobiographical dictations. With many passages that are important parts of Clemens’s autobiography, the book is of greater interest for what it says about him than for what it contributes to theories about Shakespearean authorship.
Harper and Brothers published Is Shakespeare Dead? a year before Clemens died; it was the next-to-last book he published within his lifetime. A. B. Paine later included its text in What Is Man? and Other Essays (1917). A facsimile reprint of the first edition of Is Shakespeare Dead? was published in 1996 as part of the Oxford Mark Twain in a volume that also contains 1601. The volume has a new introduction by novelist Erica Jong and an afterword by Leslie A. Fiedler.
The author’s autobiography contains many passages about claimants, such as Satan, Louis XVII, Arthur Orton (the Tichborne Claimant), Mary Baker G. Eddy, and William Shakespeare. Never has there been a claimant who failed to get a hearing and accumulate a rapturous following, no matter how flimsy his claim was. A new book, The Shakespeare Problem Restated (by George Greenwood, 1908), rekindles the author’s interest in the theory that (Francis) Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. He recalls Delia Bacon‘s earlier book (The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, 1857), which appeared during his steamboat piloting days. As an apprentice, he spent hours listening to George Ealer quote Shakespeare and rebut Baconian theories. To satisfy Ealer’s need for an argument, he took up the Baconian position that Shakespeare lacked the background in law that the plays’ author must have had.
The author recalls his interest in Satan as a child, when his desire to write Satan’s biography was frustrated by the fact that everything “known” about him was conjectural.
As with Satan, pitifully few facts are known about Shakespeare’s life. There is no evidence that he ever wrote anything, that anyone thought him remarkable during his lifetime, or that he was connected with the plays attributed to his name. So far as anybody knows, he never wrote a play, he received just one letter during his entire life, and he wrote only one short poem. Anything else said about him is conjectured.
A detailed examination of conjectures about Shakespeare’s life does not support the idea that he somehow got legal training. William Shakespeare’s biography is like a reconstructed brontosaur: nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster of Paris.
There are three Shakespeare “cults”: Shakespearites, who know that Shakespeare wrote the plays; Baconians, who know that Bacon wrote them; and Brontosaurians, who know that Shakespeare did not write the plays, but merely suspect that Bacon did. The author is a Brontosaurian.
Shakespeare’s death attracted little attention because he did nothing to merit celebrity. What is known about the author’s life in Hannibal provides an interesting contrast with what is known about Shakespeare’s life in Stratford. Although the author lived in Hannibal for just 15 years more than 50 years earlier, 16 childhood schoolmates still remember him. By contrast, years after Shakespeare died in Stratford—where he lived for 26 years—virtually no one could be found who remembered him.
The issue of Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays can be reduced to a single question: Did he ever practice law? To write about any occupation convincingly, one must be trained in it. The author’s own expertise in mining, for example, sets his writing about miners apart from that of Bret Harte—whose lack of experience is instantly revealed in his unauthentic dialogue.
A summary of Greenwood’s work finds ample evidence in Shakespeare’s plays and poems that their author not only had extensive knowledge of law, but knew the workings of the courts and legal life generally. Since Shakespeare clearly had no such experience, he could not possibly have written the plays.
No one can be sure whether Bacon wrote the plays. He could have written them, but conclusive proof is missing.
The author of Shakespeare’s plays must also have had “wisdom, erudition, imagination, capaciousness of mind, grace, and majesty of expression”—none of which Shakespeare is known to have possessed.
Denying that he expects people to change their minds about Shakespeare, the author says that he is not so foolish as to believe that people will abandon cherished superstitions.
The author also denies expressing any irreverent ideas—in contrast to the irreverence of the “Stratfordolaters” and “Shakesperiods.”
If one compiled a list of the 500 most celebrated figures in British history back to Tudor times, biographical particulars could be found about every one of them except the most illustrious by far—Shakespeare. Nothing that is known about him indicates that he was anything other than a commonplace person. Almost nothing is known about him because he had no history to record.
A post****** to this chapter cites a recent newspaper clipping from Hannibal that attests to the fame that Mark Twain still enjoys in his hometown. He also cites a recent obituary of a Hannibal woman as an example of a person who certainly would have remembered him in Hannibal, but would not have remembered Shakespeare, had she lived in Stratford. Even Hannibal’s town drunkards have left behind more lasting memories than Shakespeare did in his own town.
Text Citation: Rasmussen, R. Kent. “Is Shakespeare Dead?.” Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= CCMT0334&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 28, 2008).