Toastmasters Speech #3: Get to the Point
Did William Shakspere, as he was called on his baptismal and death documents, write the works of William Shakespeare? Did the actor from Stratford upon Avon write those brilliant plays printed in the First Folio, including arguably the greatest play of all time, Hamlet? Or was he a front man for one or more others?
Why ask this question? William Shakespeare is the most researched author in history. Scholars have dug like terriers and unearthed over seventy documents about him. These documents portray him as a grain merchant, a property owner, and an actor and shareholder in a theater. But there are key elements missing from his biography that we would expect to find in the biography of a great playwright. Three of these missing elements are: an appropriate education, 10,000 hours of practice, and evidence of travel in Italy.
William Shakspere was born in 1564, the son of a glover. We don’t know if he attended the Stratford grammar school because the relevant records no longer exist, but if he did, scholars believe he would have left it by age fourteen. In grammar school he would have received an education in English and Latin. He did not attend either of England’s universities at the time—Oxford or Cambridge.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, knew not only English and Latin, but also French, Italian, Greek, and possibly Spanish. In addition, the plays included words with meanings that were particular to Cambrige University at that time.
In his day, people learned foreign languages via university training, tutors, and foreign travel. Shakspere did not attend university, it’s unlikely his father had enough money to hire a tutor, and there’s no evidence that Shakspere ever stepped foot off the island of Britain. Moreover, Shakspere was married and a father by age nineteen. If he was busy earning money to support his family, where did he find the time for language study? Where did he receive the training to be able to write brilliant poetry, and to be able to pour over myriad source texts, extract the essentials, and mold them into a unified dramatic narrative? Simply put, he lacked the education to have written the Shakespeare canon of works.
The answer to this conundrum is usually: Shakespeare was a genius. Well, Einstein was a genius, too, but at least we know he studied math and science. Mozart was a genius, but his father, a professional musician, encouraged him at every step. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, informs us that geniuses don’t just happen: they are created through roughly ten thousand hours of practice. It takes that long to gain mastery over one’s craft. Professional violinists and pianists practice about ten thousand hours before reaching the ranks of the elite. Although Mozart was a child prodigy, his first true masterwork was composed at the age of twenty-one, after he had been writing music for ten years.The Beatles’ early gigs in Hamburg lasted eight hours a day, seven days a week, and by the time they hit it big in 1964, they had performed live about twelve hundred times.
Where are Shakspere’s ten thousand hours? We don’t know what Shakspere was doing during his so-called “lost years,” between 1585, when his twins were born in Stratford, and the early 1590s, when his plays began appearing onstage. But there’s no evidence he served a literary apprenticeship.
Another key element that Shakspere lacked was any evidence that he traveled in Italy. Richard Paul Roe’s book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, provides example after example of Shakespeare's knowledge of Italy that, taken together, make it crystal clear the Bard spent a fair amount of time in that country, rather than that he only read about it or spoke to people who’d traveled there. To argue otherwise is now untenable.
To cite two examples, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is described as walking “underneath the grove of sycamore that westward rooteth from the city’s side” (I.i.127-8). Roe found stands of sycamores, part of a grove now intersected by buildings and boulevards, still growing outside a western gate of Verona. Scholars have criticized Shakespeare for including characters who travel by boat between land-locked Italian cities. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, both Valentine and Proteus journey from Verona to Milan by water. Through dogged research, Roe found out that this could be accomplished by a long-lost network of waterways that existed in Shakespeare’s day, when travel by water was safer than travel by land.
Despite the existence of seventy documents related to William Shakspere, there is a lack of evidence that he had the appropriate training, the 10,000 hours of practice, and travel in Italy. My answer to whether William Shakspere wrote the plays of William Shakespeare is: highly doubtful.