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Book Review: Shakespeare: The Evidence, (by Ian Wilson) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Shakespeare: The Evidence, by Ian Wilson, is available in paperback from St. Martin's Press for $19.95. Publication date is set for 27th January, 1999.

From the most apathetic audience member sleeping through Shakespeare in the Park to the most devoted season ticket-holder sitting in the front row of even the most obscure of Shakespeare's plays, Ian Wilson's Shakespeare: The Evidence can intrigue. Luckily for Wilson, his challenge is not to make Shakespeare interesting, mysterious, controversial, or amazing–Shakespeare, whoever he was, has already done this–but to read widely and thoroughly of the vast realm of Shakespearean research and provide the most salient and interesting theories and evidence for his readers. Wilson does not examine the literary Shakespeare, (although he does provide excerpts from the plays and sonnets as evidence for various theories) but rather he explores the historical Shakespeare–a figure so enigmatic as to cast doubt upon his very existence.

The 'real' Shakespeare, depending upon the scholar and his or her interpretation of the evidence, could have been the son of small-town parents, an exiled Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth herself. How could this extraordinary and unparalleled dramatist and poet, who reached fame even during his own lifetime, escape adequate historical documentation? Shakespeare's genius may be captured in his literary works (although even these texts have mysteries of their own, as Wilson demonstrates), but the details of his life, which readers have come to demand of their author, are intriguingly and often infuriatingly absent. In an age when letter writing was its own form of art and an omnipresent hobby, no such Shakespearean epistle can be found. Indeed, there is not even an original manuscript of any of his plays. Neither is there proof of any research or books bought or borrowed by Shakespeare–so how could a local man with a country education write so knowledgeably regarding politics, law, and worldly locations? This lack of evidence has led to a wide range of hoaxes, often by prominent scholars desperate to fill in the exasperating absence of information, and these hoaxes, too, are detailed by Wilson.

Shakespeare: The Evidence is a thorough work. Its readable presentation strikes a middle ground between scholarly and popular language. The book covers all aspects of Shakespearean scholarship: from the available legal records to the absence of expected evidence, from his relationship with wife Anne Hathaway to his possible homosexuality, from Shakespeare's London to the newly reconstructed Globe Theatre, from his start in acting to his end as a dramatist under the patronage of his queen, from historians contemporary to Shakespeare to Ian Wilson's own beliefs and theories. The result is a hugely informative text that reads like a mystery–a mystery for which Wilson provides all the evidence we need to be well-educated sleuths.

Janine Stumb

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