An essay by Max Beerbohm
On Shakespeare's Birthday
Title: On Shakespeare's Birthday
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]
My florist has standing orders to deliver early on the morning of this day a chaplet of laurel. With it in my hand, I reach by a step-ladder the nobly arched embrasure that is above my central book-case, and crown there the marble brow of him whose name is the especial glory of our literature--of all literature. The greater part of the morning is spent by me in contemplation of that brow, and in silent meditation. And, year by year, always there intrudes itself into this meditation the hope that Shakespeare's name will, one day, be swept into oblivion.
I am not--you will have perceived that I certainly am not--a `Baconian.' So far as I have examined the evidence in the controversy, I do not feel myself tempted to secede from the side on which (rightly, inasmuch as it is the obviously authoritative side) every ignorant person ranges himself. Even the hottest Baconian, filled with the stubbornest conviction, will, I fancy, admit in confidence that the utmost thing that could, at present, be said for his conclusions by a judicial investigator is that they are `not proven.' To be convinced of a thing without being able to establish it is the surest recipe for making oneself ridiculous. The Baconians have thus made themselves very ridiculous; and that alone is reason enough for not wishing to join them. And yet my heart is with them, and my voice urges them to carry on the fight. It is a good fight, in my opinion, and I hope they will win it.
I do not at all understand the furious resentment they rouse in the bosoms of the majority. Mistaken they may be; but why yell them down as knavish blasphemers? Our reverence, after all, is given not to an Elizabethan named William Shakespeare, who was born at Stratford, and married, and migrated to London, and became a second-rate actor, and afterwards returned to Stratford, and made a will, and composed a few lines of doggerel for the tombstone under which he was buried. Our reverence is given to the writer of certain plays and sonnets. To that second-rate actor, because we believe he wrote those plays and sonnets, we give that reverence. But our belief is not such as we give to the proposition that one and two make three. It is a belief that has to be upheld by argument when it is assailed. When a man says to us that one and two make four, we smile and are silent. But when he argues, point by point, that in Bacon's life and writings there is nothing to show that Bacon might not have written the plays and sonnets, and that there is much to show that he did write them, and that in what we know about Shakespeare there is little evidence that Shakespeare wrote those works, and much evidence that he did not write them, then we pull ourselves together, marshalling all our facts and all out literary discernment, so as to convince our interlocutor of his error. But why should we not do our task urbanely? The cyphers, certainly, are stupid and tedious things, deserving no patience. But the more intelligent Baconians spurn them as airily as do you or I. Our case is not so strong that the arguments of these gentlemen can be ignored; and naughty temper does but hamper us in the task of demolition. If Bacon were proved to have written Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, would mankind be robbed of one of those illusions which are necessary to its happiness and welfare? If so, we have a good excuse for browbeating the poor Baconians. But it isn't so, really and truly.
Suppose that one fine morning, Mr. Blank, an ardent Baconian, stumbled across some long-sought document which proved irrefragably that Bacon was the poet, and Shakespeare an impostor. What would be our sentiments? For the second-rate actor we should have not a moment's sneaking kindness or pity. On the other hand, should we not experience an everlasting thrill of pride and gladness in the thought that he who had been the mightiest of our philosophers had been also, by some unimaginable grace of heaven, the mightiest of our poets? Our pleasure in the plays and sonnets would be, of course, not one whit greater than it is now. But the pleasure of hero-worship for their author would be more than reduplicated. The Greeks revelled in reverence of Heracles by reason of his twelve labours. They would have been disappointed had it been proved to them that six of those labours had been performed by some quite obscure person. The divided reverence would have seemed tame. Conversely, it is pleasant to revere Bacon, as we do now, and to revere Shakespeare, as we do now; but a wildest ecstasy of worship were ours could we concentrate on one of those two demigods all that reverence which now we apportion to each apart.
It is for this reason, mainly, that I wish success to the Baconians. But there is another reason, less elevated perhaps, but not less strong for me. I should like to watch the multifarious comedies which would spring from the downfall of an idol to which for three centuries a whole world had been kneeling. Glad fancy makes for me a few extracts from the issue of a morning paper dated a week after the publication of Mr. Blank's discovery. This from a column of Literary Notes:
>From Baiham, Sydenham, Lewisham, Clapham, Herne Hill and Peckham comes news that the local Shakespeare Societies have severally met and decided to dissolve. Other suburbs are expected to follow.
This from the same column:
Mr. Sidney Lee is now busily engaged on a revised edition of his monumental biography of Shakespeare. Yesterday His Majesty the King graciously visited Mr. Lee's library in order to personally inspect the progress of the work, which, in its complete form, is awaited with the deepest interest in all quarters.
And this, a leaderette:
Yesterday at a meeting of the Parks Committee of the London County Council it was unanimously resolved to recommend at the next meeting of the Council that the statue of Shakespeare in Leicester Square should be removed. This decision was arrived at in view of the fact that during the past few days the well-known effigy has been the centre of repeated disturbances, and is already considerably damaged. We are surprised to learn that there are in our midst persons capable of doing violence to a noble work of art merely because its subject is distasteful to them. But even the most civilised communities have their fits of vandalism. `'Tis true, 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true.'
And this from a page of advertisements:
To be let or sold. A commodious and desirable Mansion at Stratford-on- Avon. Delightful flower and kitchen gardens. Hot and cold water on every floor. Within easy drive of station. Hitherto home of Miss Marie Corelli.
And this, again from the Literary Notes:
Mr. Hall Caine is in town. Yesterday, at the Authors' Club, he passed almost unrecognised by his many friends, for he has shaved his beard and moustache, and has had his hair cropped quite closely to the head. This measure he has taken, he says, owing to the unusually hot weather prevailing.
A sonnet, too, printed in large type on the middle page, entitled `To Shakespeare,' signed by the latest fashionable poet, and beginning thus:
O undetected during so long years,
A cable, too, from `Our Own Correspondent' in New York:
This afternoon the Carmania came into harbour. Among the passengers was Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, who had come over in personal charge of Anne Hathaway's Cottage, his purchase of which for £2,000,000 excited so much attention on your side a few weeks ago. Mr. Blank's sensational revelations not having been published to the world till two days after the Carmania left Liverpool, the millionaire collector had, of course, no cognisance of the same. On disembarking he proceeded straight to the Customs Office and inquired how much duty was to be imposed on the cottage. On being courteously informed that the article would be passed into the country free of charge, he evinced considerable surprise. I then ventured to approach Mr. Morgan and to hand him a journal containing the cabled summary of Mr. Blank's disclosures, which he proceeded to peruse. His comments I must reserve for the next mail, the cable clerks here demurring to their transmission.
Only a dream? But a sweet one. Bustle about, Baconians, and bring it true. Don't listen to my florist.
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