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We have an op-ed piece about the whereabouts of The Bard in his early life.
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“What does the brain matter compared with the heart?” — Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Was William Shakespeare A Soldier? - Op-Ed Piece
There is an unusual question in literature about its most famous figure, and it is not whether he lived or not, but what he did in his twenties. Scholars debate where in the world William Shakespeare went before he came onto the London scene in his early thirties. Did he teach? Was he a soldier? Did he farm? For a guy who is as popular as him, it is mind-boggling that we don’t know where he even was for what some may view as a crucial part of his life.
Unfortunately, for our sake, the guy didn’t write down much of his personal life; even in his stories, there is only one scene of kids in a school, so Shakespeare sheds little light on his former life in his fiction by rarely mentioning it.
Let’s get the question of this piece out of the way. Technically speaking, the answer is no. William Shakespeare was never a soldier in his life. But, unfortunately, we have no records to support it. So he either was one, and the data was lost to time, and no one ever mentioned it during his life, or he lied about his enrollment and went under a different name. The man we call William Shakespeare never set foot on a battlefield. At least officially. Until someone can find a document that officially proves Shakespeare was a soldier, then we are stuck speculating using the little information we have.
Why do some think that he was a soldier of all things? You don’t have to be a military man to realize that the Bard wrote an unusually high amount of military-related pieces, even compared to writers today. After his love portions of his writing, the second largest portion is of works that have to do with people fighting wars. Can you call that curiosity of the mind and the intelligence of a genius at work? I mean, maybe? Heck, maybe the guy just really liked war and wanted to write of it every chance he got. (Could all this theorizing be misled, and the Bard just wrote of a topic he liked the most? Yes, but that still wouldn’t answer the question of his location and job before he became a writer)
Not only did Shakespeare write of war a lot, but he also wrote of war as if he was on the battlefield. It wasn’t strategy or tactics but the actual soldiers who would die on the field. Many of his great quotes and scenes depict men talking to one another before they fight. That is very interesting, in my opinion, and does suggest some altercation he had as a military man. He was involved in the minds of the soldiers as if he was a former one or knew some that were. If you think that it is reasonable for Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet because, in his youth, he was a lover, then it is also fair to say he was a soldier because of his English histories.
This theory is significant because it changes our perspective of Shakespeare. He is no longer a poet expressing beautiful verse of human emotion before a battle but a former soldier recollecting his time on the field. He isn’t using poetry to tell his story; he is telling us what he lived or what he knew others lived. Claiming that he is a soldier takes away from the popular opinion of a wizard of words with a pen composing verse to captivate the minds of the masses. He was a former soldier. Put something like that into today’s context; would we think differently of a popular writer if we learned they were a soldier in their former life? Yeah, because no one thinks the soldier is going to be a great poet, even though other writers, like Hemingway and Salinger, were soldiers in their lives.
We don’t put the soldier next to the poet, even though there is nothing wrong with being both. We separate them in our culture’s mind. Soldiers carry guns, wear equipment, and fight battles to protect the nation. Poets carry pens, wear whatever they feel like, and express human experience. In history, we never talk of the great generals as if they ever even read poetry. Because the mind of a general and the mind of a poet is different to us, we never think of putting them next to one another.
There is a major flaw to this theory or the very application of trying to identify a man’s life by his prose, and that is ironically enough not found in London but in the life of an American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.
If you read Poe, you think the guy is a nut. You wonder how many people he killed, whether he buried someone alive, and how many years he spent in jail… However, you would be disappointed that the man of macabre was nothing like his persona. He was rather bland, with no noticeable acts of mischief one associates with his stories. In other words, he was nothing like the guys he wrote about because they were just stories.
If you think that is the case with all writers, and they trade their personality for the words for the story’s sake, then identifying Shakespeare as a soldier can never be done because of a scene about Saint Crispin’s Day.
Personally, I like the idea of Shakespeare lying about his military days. He was a soldier to some extent, not for long, and then got a job as a schoolteacher, in a supervisor position, or one where he learned of business. My guess is that he was in the military under a different name, but for only a few years. But, of course, until someone gets an official document, this will have to stay a theory.
William Shakespeare was a soldier once. I mean, sure, why not?
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Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on pensandwords.com. His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes that the reader shares that same passion.
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