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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/23/16

Is Shakespeare Dead? Mark Twain Confronts an Enduring Myth

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The Bard

While tributes pour in to the Great Bard, Shakespeare, on his April 23rd birth date, it may be worth mentioning that our US national icon and friend in the struggle, Mark Twain, believed the historical Shakespeare to be a ridiculous fraud and forgery. In a chapter in his Autobiography called "Is Shakespeare Dead?", Twain genuinely argues that the Stratford actor couldn't possibly have written the works ascribed to him, and while he is extremely funny as always, Twain is not pretending to argue; he really means it, presenting his case with force in this underappreciated essay.

Twain subscribed to the "Brontosaurian" view, which advanced the idea that Shakespeare's identity as the author of the Great Works is based on evidence as flimsy as the "experts" inferring the enormous reptile from a tiny bone shard.

To be clear, Mark Twain genuinely believed "Shakespeare" to be a complete and utter fraud, so perhaps this reading will provide you with a sense of this pet position of Twain's, and perhaps you will feel impelled to read the entire text of "Is Shakespeare Dead?"

At the end I'll tell you who Twain thought was a prime candidate as author of the "Shakespeare Plays", but this issue is secondary to his conviction that the Shakespeare we know did not write and could not have written the works attributed to him.

Mark Twain ca. 1910
Mark Twain ca. 1910
(Image by A.F. Bradley in his studio., Author: Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio.)
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From Twain's Autobiography: Is Shakespeare Dead? Chapter lll

"How curious and interesting is the parallel--as far as poverty of biographical details is concerned--between Satan and Shakespeare. It is wonderful, it is unique, it stands quite alone, there is nothing resembling it in history, nothing resembling it in romance, nothing approaching it even in tradition. How sublime is their position, and how overtopping, how sky-reaching, how supreme--the two Great Unknowns, the two Illustrious Conjecturabilities! They are the best-known unknown persons that have ever drawn breath on the planet.

For the instruction of the ignorant I will make a list, now, of those details of Shakespeare's history which are facts--verified facts, established facts, undisputed facts.


He was born on the 23d of April, 1564.

Of good farmer-class parents who could not read, could not write, could not sign their names.

At Stratford, a small back settlement which in that day was shabby and unclean, and densely illiterate. Of the nineteen important men charged with the government of the town, thirteen had to "make their mark" in attesting important documents, because they could not write their names.

Of the first eighteen years of his life nothing is known. They are a blank.

On the 27th of November (1582) William Shakespeare took out a license to marry Anne Whateley.

Next day William Shakespeare took out a license to marry Anne Hathaway. She was eight years his senior. William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. In a hurry. By grace of a reluctantly-granted dispensation there was but one publication of the banns.

Within six months the first child was born.

About two (blank) years followed, during which period nothing at all happened to Shakespeare, so far as anybody knows.

Then came twins--1585. February.

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