Despite thousands and thousands of volumes of Shakespeare research which has been done since the Bard last wrote over 400 years ago, it is becoming apparent that much of the real discovery about Shakespeare is still in our future.
The problem has been how our traditional concept of the Bard himself has limited our questions about his work.
For prominent example, very recent work (still looking for a publisher) has demonstrated that past doubts and criticisms about Shakespeare’s first hand knowledge of Italy have been founded in misconceptions and downright errors based in the conviction that Shakespeare could never have such first hand knowledge because there is no proof or even suggestion based in any documented fact about his life that he ever traveled there. This combination of scholarship and personal detective work amply shows through dozens of examples how scholars have been simply wrong and has proven beyond reasonable doubt that Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy is so subtle and accurate that he must have been there himself.
Likewise, the reductive view of Shakespaere as the glover’s son who may have had an ample public school education in Stratford but for whom there is no documented evidence that he ever read anything or could write anything but his name will be surrendering to the evidence of the plays. Recent work, which has built upon the research of a few traditional scholars who stopped short of going there, has demonstrated that Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek was thorough enough to allow him to read ancient texts in the original.
Other recent work is demonstrating that plays whose origins have been dated between 1604 and 1616 may well have been written before 1604. This work is continuing. It will demonstrate how the dating of Shakespeare’s plays has been based on the time of their likely occurrence during the life of the glover’s son. But if we don’t limit ourselves by our biographical assumptions, we free ourselves to discover truths which we have not allowed ourselves to see before.
Other exciting Shakespeare research is progressing on other fronts as well.
One good example is The Merchant of Venice. By taking off the blinders, it is possible to see that this play is quite simple and straightforward and not at all puzzling as centuries of traditional scholars have contended. Not only that, but the play is no anti-Semitic, sensational pander to London audiences whose purpose was purely to put butts in the seats so that Shakespeare could earn a buck or two and advance in the supposed competition with other playwrights. Quite the opposite, it is a deeply philosophical and moral allegory, quite cosmopolitan in its view, grounded profoundly in Renaissance humanism which holds mankind as perfectible and quite capable of living in peace with one another. Its hero, we discover, if we pay attention to Shakespeare’s words and not to our own spectacular prejudices, is not the evil Jew whose baseness springs from his rejection of Christian values. He is a Jew whose tragedy springs from his rejection of his own Jewish values. This is all in the play if we are willing to understand what we are reading and seeing.
The new scholarship is just that, paying attention to Shakespeare’s words without the constrictions demanded by the reductive assumption that Shakespere of Stratford is Shakespeare the genius. The good news is that although 400 years of assumption about and prejudice against Shakespeare have brought error, misconception, and most of all the deprivation of millions of the understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare’s true genius, responsible and careful scholarship has been underway some time now, despite the opposition of the Academy and the Shakespeare Industry. The early results are exciting. The future of Shakespeare is bright indeed.