The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Shakespeare
Book excerpt: “The Secret of Psalm 46"
Human beings seem endlessly intrigued by possibilities of secret codes and hidden messages. In the 20th century, we played record albums backward and thought we heard buried messages, and we read much into a photograph of four musicians crossing a street, one shoeless. Shakespearean lore has its share of puzzles too. The most fascinating concerns the Bible and the number 46.
The year 1610, when Will Shakespeare of Stratford would have turned forty-six, was a busy one for the committee of scholars employed by King James to translate the holy Scriptures. In that last year before publication of the King James Bible, many revisions were made. The scholars did a good job. Although no longer considered accurate by biblical scholars, this translation is still popularly cherished as the most lyrical and poetic. Did the scholars leave a secret code in Psalm 46? You decide.
Count 46 words from the beginning of the Psalm. You will find the word “shake.” Now, count 46 words from the end of the Psalm, not including the punctuating “selahs” (a Hebrew word that indicates a pause in the music of the psalm) sprinkled throughout, and discover the word “spear.” ...
Did James I ask his star wordsmith to lend a hand in shaping a psalm or two? If so, could Shakespeare have buried a split signature in the text? Did he carve his initials on the sacred writings, to say “I was here,” a marker to stand through the ages? Or did scholars honor the Bard with the cryptogram, presenting it as a gift on his 46th birthday? Or have we imagined the whole thing?
Excerpts from the chapter titled “Was Shakespeare Really Shakespeare? The ‘Authorship Question’”
Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? This is not a trick question. It is, in fact, what Life magazine once called “history’s biggest literary whodunnit.” ...
Reasonable Doubts about Will ~
Life Documents: What is actually known about the life of Shakespeare could easily fit in the back pocket of a stage hand. The books written about his life are 99.9 percent conjecture.
A few facts have been established with the help of parish records, all of them discovered almost one hundred years after Will’s death, but no one knows what happened to Will for the seven years after he turned twenty-one. It is assumed he had a basic grammar school education. It is known he had a wife and three children. Yet, just seven winters later, after what the biographers have dubbed his “lost years,” he surfaced in London with lightning speed, became a published poet, immensely successful, on publicly intimate terms with the Earl of Southampton. Scholar Richard Whalen wrote, “If Will Shakspere was the author, his initial learning curve was not just steep, it was vertical.”
While Shakespeare’s name was becoming the stuff of legend in London, Will’s name continued to appear on mundane business and legal records in Stratford. He was accused of hoarding grain during a famine and cited for tax evasion. He sued people for small sums owed him.
Documents exist that reflect the comings and goings of his life as a businessman, acquiring property, selling grain. He seems to have retired from London abruptly in 1604, at the very height of his creativity.
There is nothing strange here, if one is considering the paper trail of an ordinary fellow, an actor and businessman making his way in a life split between Stratford and London. It is, on the other hand, a very odd paper trail if one assumes it belongs to the world’s greatest writer.
A Question of Class: Those who defend Will from Stratford as the author of the sonnets, poems and plays, say he was a genius and that genius knows no bounds of class, race, or gender and that those who believe he was an unlettered yokel are elitist snobs.
Others argue that the question of class can cut two ways and that it is elitist to blithely dismiss the barriers imposed by the kind of rigid class system which was in place in Elizabethan England. Working-class Will would not have had easy access, if any, to the exclusive world of the nobility who were the subjects of all Shakespeare’s plays except one. Only The Merry Wives of Windsor features working-class characters. This play is also regarded as Shakespeare’s most artificial and contrived. Imagination must feed on raw material. How could the young man who grew up three days’ horseback ride from London manage the subtleties of court life with such familiarity and skill over and over again? When was he exposed to the sports of the nobility such as falconry? When did he find the time and resources to study horticulture and music in the depth reflected in the plays? His numerous references to Italy revealed detailed knowledge of the peculiarities of Venetian law, obscure Italian artists and comic allusions to regional accents. He drew on Italian texts which had not yet been translated into English. How did Will of Stratford gain this degree of expertise? Italian was not taught in Elizabethan grammar schools. His references to law, music, classical mythology, and so on were specific, not general. Could working-class Will have found that much time to study and write while learning his way around London, making theater contacts, and performing on stage?