On Essays and Letters

Under the listings of Shakespeare, the Internet abounds
in essays, reviews, texts, and comments, almost anything
one can imagine about his works and about works explaining
his works. My Viking Edition of Shakespeare comes to 1,471
pages. I suspect that at least that number of pages of new
materials about Shakespeare appears almost every month. In
various universities, moreover, from here to India, we can
find listed courses on “Shakespeare and . . . —You
Name It.” Something is found on every topic and Shakespearean
personage from love to war, from atheism to biblical citations,
from Sir John Falstaff to Iago, and from Cordelia to Julius
Caesar. A student who wants to write an essay on any given
play or character of Shakespeare can call up any number of
already composed essays. The only thing that prevents him
from turning them in as his own is his conscience.

With a class every semester, I myself read Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s
. “Shakespeare and War” courses
appear in various curricula. Out of curiosity, I checked
Google to see if a course entitled, “Shakespeare’s
Biology” was listed. I was rather relieved not to
find one, though some close calls were evident. One entry
was entitled “The Biology of Love,” reputedly
about “the effects of love on the chemical state
of the brain.” This description is enough to make
us hope that we never fall in love, but the lady author
enthusiastically assures us, “I mean, I love Shakespeare’s

What I also found that amused me was an on-line essay beginning, “In
the time of William Shakespeare there was a strong belief
in the existence of the supernatural. Thus, the supernatural
is a recurring aspect in many of Mr. Shakespeare’s
plays.” I do not believe that I had ever seen Shakespeare
formally referred to before as “Mr. Shakespeare.” Somehow,
it did not sound right. Shakespeare is one of those few people
who are so great that he only needs his last name.

With regard to the “supernatural” in Shakespeare,
I was even more perplexed than with the relation between “the
effects of love on the chemical state of the brain” and
the sonnets. Let us suppose, for instance, that we come across
the following sentence: “In the first decade of the
twenty-first century, there was a strong disbelief in the
existence of the supernatural. Therefore, in Mr. Alexander
Smith’s recent plays, the supernatural did not appear.” Now,
I grant that both statements about cultural belief or disbelief
in the supernatural are logically probable. That is to say,
their conclusions generally follow from their premises, though
the sudden appearance of Christianity in the first century
A.D., or Islam in the seventh, might make us cautious.

Whether Shakespeare himself might have actually believed
in the supernatural or my mythical dramatist Mr. Smith might
himself also not believed in it, we do not know from such
premises. We presume that the culture determines the man,
deftly leaving aside the more interesting question of whether
the supernatural did or did not in fact exist, whatever the
cultural patterns. We would like to know not only whether
people in Shakespeare’s time believed in the supernatural,
but whether Shakespeare did and, if so, what effect it had
on his plays.

In this context, I also found an essay informing me that
Shakespeare was an “atheist,” while larger efforts
were found devoted to the question of whether he was or was
not a Catholic, or an Anglican, or a Puritan. Chesterton
devoted several essays to the question of whether Shakespeare
was in fact Francis Bacon, and if he was, what difference
would it make? Some people think Shakespeare was neither
himself nor Bacon. The leading candidate seems to be the
Earl of Oxford, but all admit some mysteriousness about just
who Shakespeare was if he was not Shakespeare, and even more
if he was.

In a column in the Illustrated London Newsfor
October 1, 1927, entitled “Shakespeare and the Dark
Lady,” Chesterton observes that a certain Comtesse
de Chambrun had written a book on the question of the “dark
lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets, entitled, Shakespeare:
Actor, Poet, as Seen by His Associates, Explained by Himself
and Remembered by the Succeeding Generation.
to say, this is no mean title. Chesterton acknowledges the
erudition of the Comtesse. He says of her: “I hasten
to say that the lady is very learned and I am very ignorant.
I do not profess to know much about Shakespeare, outside
such superfluous trifling, as the reading of his literary
works” (CW, XXXIV, 387). The whole difference
between wisdom and academic learning is contained in that
one sentence of Chesterton.

Mark Twain once wrote an essay entitled “Is Shakespeare
Dead?” He was concerned about this same question of
whether Bacon was Shakespeare. This issue had famously been
broached in 1856 by a woman by the name of Delia Bacon, no
relation. Bacon thought that Shakespeare was a kind of modern
philosopher advocating love and goodness, not a Christian.
She also thought he was Francis Bacon.

Twain himself did not think that Shakespeare could have
written Shakespeare’s plays for the same reason that
someone who had not worked a packet-boat on the Mississippi
could not write accurately about what actually takes place
on the water. “Shakespeare couldn’t have written
Shakespeare’s words, for the reason that the man who
wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the
law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways—and
if Shakespeare was possessed of the infinitely divided star-dust
that constituted this vast wealth, HOW did he get it, and
WHERE and WHEN?” The same argument can be applied to
Shakespeare’s accurate knowledge of Italy, or the Bible,
or the sea.

In an earlier essay on the Bacon-Shakespeare issue, dated
March 9, 1907, Chesterton argued rather in favor of Shakespeare.
Bacon’s own works did not show him knowing all the
things that whoever wrote Shakespeare knew. A “clever
lad” might very well have picked up by reading and
observing what he did not experience. After all, this is
what books are for. For Chesterton, Shakespeare was the sane
man, Bacon the mad scientist:

The truth is, I fear, that madness has a great advantage
over sanity. Sanity is always careless. Madness is always
careful. A lunatic might count all the railings along the
front of Hyde Park; he might know the exact number of them,
because he thought they were something else. A healthy man
would not know the number of the railings, or perhaps even
the shape of the railings; he would know nothing about them
except the supreme, sublime, Platonic, and transcendent truth,
that they were railings (CW, XXVII, 416).

The point is that Shakespeare, as seen in his works, seems
to be the sane one when it comes to that universal balance
of knowing things that matter. This is the same
sanity that Chesterton saw in Aquinas who affirmed, against
all the doubters, that “eggs are eggs.”

Chesterton concludes his argument in this way: “The
whole advantage of those who think Bacon wrote Shakespeare
lies simply in the fact that they care whether Bacon wrote
Shakespeare. The whole disadvantage of those who do not think
it lies in the fact that (being folly) they do not care about
it. The sane man who is sane enough to see that Shakespeare
wrote Shakespeare is the man who is sane enough not to worry
whether he did or didn’t.” That is to say, what
is important is the text of the plays of “Mr. Shakespeare,” whoever
it be that wrote them. In a sense, to miss the great, overarching,
yes “sublime, Platonic, and transcendent truths” found
in Shakespeare simply because we do not know exactly who
wrote them is indeed lunacy, madness.

In the end, let it be said of all of us, “I do not
profess to know much about Shakespeare outside such superfluous
trifling, as reading his literary works.” “Mr.
Shakespeare” is only “dead,” to use Twain’s
word, if we do not read him, even if, or especially if, we
may not know exactly who he was. On reading his literary
works, what we do know is something about practically everything
that is humanly important, and indeed, not a little of the

James V. Schall, S.J., is
Professor of Government at Georgetown University.