In 1623, on this day Edward Blount and William and Isaac Jaggard published the collection of "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies" which modern scholars commonly refer to as the "First Folio".
First FolioTo alert the reader to the real identity of the playwright, the cover artist Martin Droeshout had portrayed an incongruous-looking fellow with a mask-line down his face, wearing a back-to-front doublet with two right-eyes (pictured, below). Writing three centuries later, Sir George Greenwood would remark "I can never understand how any unprejudiced person, with a sense of humor, can look upon [the print] without being tempted to irreverent laughter".
Born in 1564, Gulielmus Shakspere was an illiterate son of a butcher who never attended school (his father simply placed an X on his birth certificate). Neither his wife Anne Hathaway, nor any of his three children could read or write either. In London, the only written records bearing the name "Willemus Shackspere" are unpaid debts dating from 1595. Two years later, he moved to Straford Upon Avon, four days of hard horse-riding from the capital, where he died in April 1616. Six versions of his signature remain in print, three of which appear on his will. No other diaries, letters or manuscripts have ever been found.
"Shakes-speare, we must be silent in our praise, cause our encomimums will but blast thy bays" ~ Wit's RecreationSimply ludicrous of course to imagine that such a man could pen forty plays, add three thousand words to the English vocabulary, or even demonstrate an insider's view of the English court from such a distance. That the greatest mystery surrounded the "soul of our age" (Doctor Jonson's term) was his real identity, was according to Charles Dickens, both "a fine comfort" and "a great mystery". "I tremble every day lest something should come out".
But come out it did, finally, exactly four hundred years later with the discovery of letters from John Clayton, the debtor from the 1595 bills. During the passage of those four centuries, over sixty individuals had been identified as the real Bard. But the mystery was finally revealed, because Clayton had left instructions for his letters to be opened in 1995.
That the Bard really was Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark was something of an anti-climax. His identify was an open secret in court, and yet his satirical potrayal of the ruling classes required some form of subterfuge in order for his playwriting to continue. And so the courtier John Clayton bought the identity of Shakespeare and then paid for his relocation to Stratford.