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Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 14:16 GMT
A comedy of errors

Shakespeare is much more than a literary great - as a crowd puller, his name virtually guarantees money in the bank. Yet how much is known for certain about the Bard?

For almost 200 years, thousands of visitors have trooped around a Warwickshire farmhouse where Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, is said to have lived.

And in Japan, many more have gazed in awe at a replica of Mary Arden's house in the 5m Shakespeare theme park.

Glebe Farm
Glebe Farm: Destined to be a tourist trap
Yet new research proves she actually grew up in nearby Glebe Farm - a case of mistaken identity worthy of one of the Bard's own comedy of errors.

In England, the confusion is easily rectified - the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which owns both farmhouses, is changing the names.

But in Japan, a mock Glebe Farm was never built when the park was constructed two years ago.

The confusion is indicative of the myths and legends that shroud Shakespeare's life.

Man of mystery?

Professor Peter Holland, director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, says more is known about the playwright than any other professional dramatist of his time.

Shakespeare
William Shakespeare: Literary man of mystery?
But is that saying much? After all, there is not even a definitive spelling of his name - in his own will, Shakespeare spelled it two different ways on the same document.

"In that period, people weren't obliged to agree on one spelling. It wasn't the least bit odd in Shakespeare's day," Professor Holland says.

Although Professor Holland concedes that Shakespeare's biography is sketchy in comparison to a noble of the period, that is because aristocrats kept extensive written records.

"But we know about Shakespeare's friends, where he lived, what he read, what he bought.

"That's not bad going, compared with what you could find out about someone today. It's like ransacking someone's credit rating."

Elizabethan whispers

The tall tales that have sprung up around Shakespeare's life and times reflect the fact that we like to gossip about famous people, Professor Holland says.

Shakespeare in love
Shakespeare in Love: Box office winner
Such rumours gained a sheen of authenticity merely because so many people had heard them.

The oft-repeated rumour that he quit Stratford for London after being caught poaching has since been debunked, as has the tale that he died of a cold caught after a night larging it up with fellow playwright, Ben Jonson.

In some cases, it has proved to be a sound commercial decision not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, Professor Holland says.

After all, although the trust never claimed the building formerly known as Mary Arden's House was the proven home of Shakespeare's mother, it did not stop 100,000 people a year from visiting the property.

In the blood

Some 50 years after the Bard's death, playwright Sir William Davenant put word about that he was Shakespeare's illegitimate son.

"The story went that Shakespeare used to stop off in Oxford on his way to London, where he had sex with his landlady [Jane Davenant, William's mother]," Professor Holland says.

"I think he claimed to be Shakespeare's natural son to boost his own profile."

Sir William later became poet laureate.

Sigmund Freud, one of the naysayers
"If William wrote this, a cigar is just a cigar"
But by far the most astounding claim of mistaken identity associated with Shakespeare is that William of Stratford may not be the man who penned 154 sonnets and 38 plays.

Conspiracy theorists - Sigmund Freud among them - say that "Shake-speare" - the byline on the published plays - is but a pen name. Some make a tidy living expounding their theories on the lecture circuit.

Tellingly, there is no agreement on which Elizabethan writer may have been the true author.

"All turn out to be aristocrats," Professor Holland says.

"There's a misplaced belief in England that only an aristocrat could be clever enough to write such works."

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29 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Wrong farm for bard's mother
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