I've posted on FB that my YA biography of the Bard--"All the World's a Stage": The Worlds of William Shakespeare--is now available on Amazon/Kindle. The book was accepted by a traditional publisher two and a half years ago--but my editor (who wanted no cuts) and the publisher (who wanted 15,000 wds cut to make it conform to the series it would belong to) could not agree. So much time had passed (and I was not exactly getting younger) that I asked for a return of the material. They consented. And so I've published it directly via Kindle Direct.
It's aimed at YA readers, as I said, but it's good for about anyone, really. Although it's based on a lot of research and scholarship and travel (and play-going!), it's not a scholarly book. Below, I've reproduced some of the opening, just to give you a sample. And here's a link to the entire thing--all you need's a Kindle and $4.99! (Link)
We’re not even sure what he looked like.
William Shakespeare, one of the most famous people who ever lived, is also one of the most mysterious and elusive. He avoids us despite our intense scholarship, our devotion. There are thousands of books about him and his writings. His three dozen plays have been performed countless times all over the world, his poems memorized and recited by myriads of students and lovers of verse. And people everywhere know some of Shakespeare’s most famous words: To be or not to be . . . This above all: to thine own self be true . . . Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears . . . All that glisters is not gold . . . The course of true love never did run smooth . . . a sea-change . . . Parting is such sweet sorrow . . . All the world’s a stage . . .
Shakespeare has also been the subject of innumerable works of art and plays and novels and short stories and poems and musical compositions of all sorts. Writers of Broadway shows have long used his plays for inspiration. The Boys from Syracuse (1938) comes from The Comedy of Errors; Kiss Me, Kate (1951), from The Taming of the Shrew; West Side Story (1959), from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet; Two Gentlemen of Verona (1973), from the play of the same name; Lone Star Love (2004), from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Filmmakers have transformed many of his plays—some, like Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, exist in many film versions. Recent popular movies like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man and O—all have plots from Shakespeare’s stories. Other films deal with his life (Shakespeare in Love, 1998) or with his characters (Hamlet 2, 2008; Letters to Juliet, 2010; Gnomeo and Juliet, 2011).
In the literary world, there are many poems and plays and novels about him and his characters. Some are serious works of literature, like Anthony Burgess’s biographical novel Nothing Like the Sun (1964) and David Wroblewski’s novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), based on Hamlet. But there are thrillers and mystery novels about him and his work, too.
Shakespeare’s characters routinely appear in newspaper comic strips and political cartoons. A classic Bugs Bunny cartoon features the “wascally wabbit” pretending to be Juliet. There are Disney cartoons in the Duck Tales series that make fun of Much Ado About Nothing (“Much Ado About Scrooge”) and Romeo and Juliet (“Bubbeo and Juliet”).
Shakespeare is such a celebrity that people know him now by mere nicknames. The most common is the Bard, an old word that means poet. But when it’s capitalized now, it means the poet. The poet of all poets, William Shakespeare. People have referred to Shakespeare as the Bard for more than 200 years. In 1623 his friend and rival playwright Ben Johnson used another nickname, the Swan of Avon (or the Sweet Swan of Avon). The Avon is the river that flows alongside Shakespeare’s home town, the place where he was born and grew to manhood, the place where he died. Known then for its herds of swans, the Avon is still home to the large, lovely birds.
And every time some new bit of information about Shakespeare turns up—or someone proposes some new theory about his life or his work—the news media award it full attention. In 1985, when a Shakespeare authority claimed to have found a previously unknown poem by Shakespeare, a world-wide media event erupted. It happened again with another poem in 1988, then again in 1996. And in 2000–2001 a debate raged about the residue of cocaine found on some seventeenth-century clay pipes unearthed near Shakespeare’s former home. Could the playwright have used drugs? (There is no other evidence that he ever did—and the pipes have not been connected to him in any way.)
Not surprisingly, there are even elaborate conspiracy theories. Some have insisted that William Shakespeare did not actually write his plays and poems. Someone else did—someone with more schooling, with more knowledge of royalty, the military, the legal system. Candidates for this “other author” have ranged from Queen Elizabeth I to the current favorite, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. De Vere’s many supporters call themselves “Oxfordians” and hold conventions and sponsor publications and host a website about their candidate. And in 2011 a big-budget film, Anonymous, presented a dramatic case for de Vere. But the vast majority of Shakespeare authorities reject the “other-author” theories.
And still … despite all his global fame, despite our vast knowledge of Shakespeare’s world and his writing, we know relatively little about Shakespeare himself, about the man. We’re not even sure what he looked like. The more we stare at him, it seems, the harder he is to see.
In March 2009, some scholars showed the world yet another portrait of Shakespeare’s face, launching yet another debate. Could this be the man? All this excitement and media attention came just a few years after a Canadian owner of a different portrait claimed that it showed Shakespeare.
For the past 400 years, one image after another has emerged as a favorite, then faded. In the spring of 2006, England’s National Portrait Gallery sponsored Searching for Shakespeare, an exhibit that featured the six best-known portraits of him and presented the evidence for and against their authenticity.
But the only image positively linked to Shakespeare (see the cover of this book) is the one first published in 1623, seven years after his death, in a collection of thirty-six of his plays. That book is called the First Folio. (A folio page is a large sheet of paper—about 13½ inches long, 8¾ inches wide.) Because his close friends and fellow actors published this book, many have assumed that the image is an accurate likeness. But some disagree. The playwright’s features seem distorted; his clothing looks out of proportion—one writer has said the image looks like a “little cartoon.”
If Shakespeare hid his face, so too has he concealed so many details about his life. He left only a few scribbled signatures on various legal documents, signatures that look very different from one another. And there are a few other pages of handwriting that some believe is Shakespeare’s. But that is all. There are no handwritten copies of his plays or his poems. No one has ever found a letter by Shakespeare. Nor a single page of any diary or journal. Nothing.
But why does it matter? Why do we care about the face of the man who wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet? Does it matter what his handwriting looked like? Where he went to school? Does it make any difference who his friends and lovers were? How he spent his days? What he read? Where he lived? What he ate and drank and thought and felt?
Some have argued that these blank pages in his biography make no difference at all. What matters, say some, is his writing. Others want to know as much as they can about the man who produced what many people believe are the greatest works ever written in the English language. These people see Shakespeare’s writing as a present, a precious gift, and they want to know the identity of the giver.
In 1623 when Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—title of the First Folio—appeared, it included thirty-six plays; eighteen had never been published before. Without the First Folio, then, about half of Shakespeare’s plays would be forever lost, among them such famous titles as The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest.
The men who arranged for publication were Shakespeare’s former business partners. They divided the plays into three large categories: Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. They also divided each of the thirty-six plays into five acts. (Stage performances throughout most of Shakespeare’s career were non-stop—no breaks or intermissions.) This is why every one of his plays—from the shortest, The Comedy of Errors, to the longest, Hamlet—has exactly five acts.
In As You Like It, one of the plays in the Folio, a bitter character named Jaques (JAY-kweez) delivers a very well-known speech that begins with “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (2.7). Life, Jaques says, is like a play—and all of us are like players, or actors. And throughout the drama of our lives, we perform seven different roles. We begin as babies, crying helplessly in the arms of caring adults; we move through childhood, youth, adulthood, old age; we end much as we began—helpless, toothless, dependent on others.
William Shakespeare lived such a life, beginning and ending in the warmth of his family. But in the decades preceding his death, he explored the human heart and mind and soul as no one else ever has, and what he found there he transformed into those radiant words that continue to illuminate—to educate and entertain.