What was Shakespeare like? Woodland has been deforested and barrels of ink spilled on this aspect of Shakespeare’s biography, so, as a bit of fun, let’s add to the eternal saga. There are two characters that Shakespeare named William and they are both in comedies; As You like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Both of them are also a little slow. Well, that’s not quite fair. Both of them are still learning. In As You Like It, William is the betrothed of Audrey, a goat-herd in the Forest of Arden. Touchstone, a clown exiled from the court, has taken a shine to Audrey and is determined to make her his. So, William will have to go.
Touchstone marches brashly in and, in the course of a single scene, belittles William completely and steals Audrey away. We are left feeling mild pity for William and mild contempt for Touchstone. You may have heard me employ this simile before, but it’s a bit like watching a man demonstrate his sporting prowess by shooting a caged lion.
If we were to play the game, Shakespeare nicely sets himself up here as just a simple lad from the Midlands. There were a lot of frightfully clever poets around in late 1590s London and Shakespeare may have been putting up his guard: “I’m only a grammar school boy from Warwickshire”, goes the argument, “Don’t compare my efforts with all the university-educated satirists around in London in 1599. I’m just a lowly craftsman, not one of these clever Writers with a capital W”. Of course, if you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything.
The other William is a young boy, learning his Latin grammar from the Welsh parson, Hugh Evans, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He’s a bit brighter, and this scene probably does actually reflect Shakespeare’s own experiences at King Edward VI’s Grammar School in Stratford. This play is from around 1600, so it is interesting that the two characters called William are from plays written around the same time and both emphasise the inadequacy of Shakespeare’s CV when compared to his fellow writers. However, the scene is filled with wordplay, and one can imagine the young Will Shakespeare engaging in a fair bit of verbal ribaldry with his boyhood chums.
But that’s about as speculative remark as you’re likely to find anywhere on the internet. And that’s quite a claim.