The Unknown and Unknowable Shakespeare
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A sense of mystery fills Shakespeare’s sonnets, mysteries that coax us into exploring dead ends, much like a Siren lures sailors to their rapturous, albeit vicious, deaths. A few of these tantalizing mysteries are: who stands on the other side of the 154 purported “sonnets of Shakespeare,” transmitting the poems to us? Did Shakespeare actually write these sonnets? What role, if any, did Shakespeare play in the production of these sonnets? The first question remains viable, especially considering print history and culture; the second and third questions, however, represent the lunacy of a parasitic, yet cherished, cultural bias: the need for certainty and singular answers. Given what little we know about Shakespeare and the fact that we possess no handwritten manuscripts of his works, any attempt to answer the latter questions—particularly the second one—is futile. Instead of perpetuating this fruitless game of “uncovering the unknowable,” we should accept the picture that posterity provides to us in Thomas Thorpe’s 1609 Quarto, John Benson’s 1640 Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent., and Stephen Booth’s 1977 Shakespeare’s Sonnets: namely, that due to the influence and motives of the printers throughout the history of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Shakespeare, at least as we know him, exists as much as a mythological construction as he did a real and successful playwright. Thus, the “answers” to his identity and authorship remain unknowable and not worth seeking.