November 2nd, 2011Boris Pasternak on the Real William Shakespeareby Joseph Pearce

I’ve received an e-mail from a visitor to this blog who has translated Boris Pasternak’s essay on Shakespeare. He believes that Pasternak’s comments throw some interesting and illuminating light on the real Shakespeare and his genius. I agree and, in consequence, am posting the e-mail and the relevant extracts from Pasternak’s essay:

Dear Joseph,

I have recently taken notice, on both the blog and the magazine, of your perfectly justified anger over the film "Anonymous." As a result, I have decided to reproduce the relevant section of Pasternak's "Essay on Translating Shakespeare." It occurred to me that this provides a highly effective argument against the Oxfordian theory, even though Pasternak does not mention Edward De Vere by name. It occurred to me that this section might be something for the StAR blog.

Best Wishes,


Authenticity of Shakespeare’s Authorship.

Shakespeare’s work is a whole and he is everywhere true to himself. He is recognizable by his vocabulary. Certain of his characters appear under different names in play after play and he sings the same song over and over to different tunes. His habit of repeating and paraphrasing himself is particularly noticeable in Hamlet.

In a scene with Horatio, Hamlet tells him that he is a man and cannot be played upon like a pipe.

A few pages further on he asks Guildenstern, in the same allegorical sense, whether he would like to play the pipe.

In the first players monologue about the cruelty of Fortune in allowing Priam to be killed, the gods are urged to punish her by breaking her on her wheel, the symbol of her power, and flinging the pieces down from heaven to Tartarus. A few pages further on Rosencrantz, speaking to the King, compares a monarch’s power to a wheel fixed on a mount which, if its foundations are shaken, destroys everything on its way as it hurtles down.

Juliet takes the dagger from dead Romeo’s side and stabs herself with the words, “This is thy sheath.” A few lines further on her father uses the same words about the dagger resting in Juliet’s breast instead of in the sheath on Romeo’s belt. And so on, almost at every step. What does this mean?

Translating Shakespeare is a task which takes time and effort. Once it is undertaken, it is best to divide into sections long enough for the work not to get stale and to complete one section each day. In thus daily progressing through the text, the translator finds himself reliving the circumstances of the author. Day by day he reproduces his actions and he is drawn into some of his secrets, not in theory, but practically, by experience.

Stumbling on such repetitions as I have mentioned and realizing how close together they are, he cannot help asking himself in surprise: “Who and in what conditions would remember so little of what he had put down only a few days earlier?”

Then, with a tangible certainty which is not given to the biographer or the scholar, the translator becomes aware of the personality of Shakespeare and of his genius. In twenty years, Shakespeare wrote thirty-six plays, not to speak of his poems and sonnets. Forced to write two plays a year on average, he had no time to revise and, constantly forgetting what he had written the day before, he repeated himself in this hurry.

At this point, the absurdity of the Baconian theory becomes more striking than ever. What need was there to replace the simple and in no way improbable account of Shakespeare’s life by a tangle of mysterious substitutions and their alleged discoveries?

Is it conceivable that Rutland, Bacon, or Southampton should have disguised himself so unsuccessfully; that, using a cipher or a faked identity, he should have hidden from Elizabeth and her time only to reveal himself so carelessly to later generations? What cunning, what ulterior purpose can be imagined in the mind of this highly reckless man who undoubtedly existed, who is not ashamed of slips of the pen, and who, yawning with fatigue in the face of history, remembered less of his own work than any high school pupil knows of it today? His strength shows itself in his weakness.

There is another puzzling thing. Why is it that ungifted people are so passionately interested in those who are great? They have their own conception of the artist, a conception which is idle, agreeable, and false. They start by assuming that Shakespeare was a genius in the way that they understand genius; they apply their yardstick to him and he fails to measure up to it.

His life, they find, was too obscure and workaday for his fame. He had no library of his own and his signature at the bottom of his will is a scrawl. It strikes them as suspicious that a man who knew the soil, the crops, the animals, and all the hours of the day and night as simple people knew them should also have been at home with law, history, diplomacy, and the ways and habits of courtiers. And so they are astonished, amazed, forgetting that so great an artist must inevitably sum up everything human in himself.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below:

  • November 3 2011 | by Dena Hunt

    That's a remarkable essay in more ways than one....

    There is a type of--mind?--that just cannot resist a temptation to see everything known as a cover for secret unknowns. It always believes the teacher is lying, it suspects deception in everything that is presented as authoritative in any way. It believes that George W. Bush blew up the World Trade Center (in order to have an excuse to invade Iraq). It believes the Church covered up the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene--and their offspring. It believes the CIA has been in contact with aliens from outer space for decades and "they're just not telling anybody." And, of course, it believes that Shakespeare's plays were not written by Shakespeare.

    Yet, this mind is astonishingly credulous toward any conspiracy theory that comes along--regardless of its source, and regardless of any sane sense of probability. The irony is that its very refusal to trust makes it so vulnerable to deception. Trust entails obedience and must be avoided at all costs because, no matter how diverse the "controversial" issues are--aliens, terrorist attacks, the life of Christ, or the authorship of plays--one characteristic is common to all: not just a distrust of authority, but pure hatred for it.

    This is the mind of the nihilist. Goes back to Eden, probably.
  • November 3 2011 | by Recent Convert

    "This is the mind of the nihilist."

    Very good point Dena! What ever they are, authority is what they consider their enemy. It's so odd, but to them its like nothing can be certain but uncertainty itself, and anyone who proposes the contrary, well they are just trying to control you, make up lies, why even mask the truth from you! The truth, something they dont even believe exists in the first place. Haha! My God, what a vicous circle.
  • November 9 2011 | by Ed Micca

    If Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, then we have a truly amazing coincidence - someone with the same name as Shakespeare, living in the same town as Shakespeare at the same time as Shakespeare, wrote Shakespeare.
  • December 14 2011 | by Angela Cybulski

    I'd never heard of Pasternak's essay before. Thank you so much for posting this! I've been following your work on Shakespeare for some time and it has truly helped me to see his work in a different light. Cheers!