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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910
CCLXXVI. Shakespeare-Bacon Talk
by Paine, Albert Bigelow


When the bad weather came there was not much company at Stormfield, and I went up regularly each afternoon, for it was lonely on that bleak hill, and after his forenoon of reading or writing he craved diversion. My own home was a little more than a half mile away, and I enjoyed the walk, whatever the weather. I usually managed to arrive about three o'clock. He would watch from his high windows until he saw me raise the hilltop, and he would be at the door when I arrived, so that there might be no delay in getting at the games. Or, if it happened that he wished to show me something in his room, I would hear his rich voice sounding down the stair. Once, when I arrived, I heard him calling, and going up I found him highly pleased with the arrangement of two pictures on a chair, placed so that the glasses of them reflected the sunlight on the ceiling. He said:

"They seem to catch the reflection of the sky and the winter colors. Sometimes the hues are wonderfully iridescent."

He pointed to a bunch of wild red berries on the mantel with the sun on them.

"How beautifully they light up!" he said; "some of them in the sunlight, some still in the shadow."

He walked to the window and stood looking out on the somber fields.

"The lights and colors are always changing there," he said. "I never tire of it."

To see him then so full of the interest and delight of the moment, one might easily believe he had never known tragedy and shipwreck. More than any one I ever knew, he lived in the present. Most of us are either dreaming of the past or anticipating the future--forever beating the dirge of yesterday or the tattoo of to-morrow. Mark Twain's step was timed to the march of the moment. There were days when he recalled the past and grieved over it, and when he speculated concerning the future; but his greater interest was always of the now, and of the particular locality where he found it. The thing which caught his fancy, however slight or however important, possessed him fully for the time, even if never afterward.

He was especially interested that winter in the Shakespeare-Bacon problem. He had long been unable to believe that the actor-manager from Stratford had written those great plays, and now a book just published, 'The Shakespeare Problem Restated', by George Greenwood, and another one in press, 'Some Characteristic Signatures of Francis Bacon', by William Stone Booth, had added the last touch of conviction that Francis Bacon, and Bacon only, had written the Shakespeare dramas. I was ardently opposed to this idea. The romance of the boy, Will Shakespeare, who had come up to London and began, by holding horses outside of the theater, and ended by winning the proudest place in the world of letters, was something I did not wish to let perish. I produced all the stock testimony--Ben Jonson's sonnet, the internal evidence of the plays themselves, the actors who had published them--but he refused to accept any of it. He declared that there was not a single proof to show that Shakespeare had written one of them.

"Is there any evidence that he didn't?" I asked.

"There's evidence that he couldn't," he said. "It required a man with the fullest legal equipment to have written them. When you have read Greenwood's book you will see how untenable is any argument for Shakespeare's authorship."

I was willing to concede something, and offered a compromise.

"Perhaps," I said, "Shakespeare was the Belasoo of that day--the managerial genius, unable to write plays himself, but with the supreme gift of making effective drama from the plays of others. In that case it is not unlikely that the plays would be known as Shakespeare's. Even in this day John Luther Long's "Madam Butterfly" is sometimes called Belasco's play; though it is doubtful if Belasco ever wrote a line of it."

He considered this view, but not very favorably. The Booth book was at this time a secret, and he had not told me anything concerning it; but he had it in his mind when he said, with an air of the greatest conviction:

"I know that Shakespeare did not write those plays, and I have reason to believe he did not touch the text in any way."

"How can you be so positive?" I asked.

He replied:

"I have private knowledge from a source that cannot be questioned."

I now suspected that he was joking, and asked if he had been consulting a spiritual medium; but he was clearly in earnest.

"It is the great discovery of the age," he said, quite seriously. "The world will soon ring with it. I wish I could tell you about it, but I have passed my word. You will not have long to wait."

I was going to sail for the Mediterranean in February, and I asked if it would be likely that I would know this great secret before I sailed. He thought not; but he said that more than likely the startling news would be given to the world while I was on the water, and it might come to me on the ship by wireless. I confess I was amazed and intensely curious by this time. I conjectured the discovery of some document--some Bacon or Shakespeare private paper which dispelled all the mystery of the authorship. I hinted that he might write me a letter which I could open on the ship; but he was firm in his refusal. He had passed his word, he repeated, and the news might not be given out as soon as that; but he assured me more than once that wherever I might be, in whatever remote locality, it would come by cable, and the world would quake with it. I was tempted to give up my trip, to be with him at Stormfield at the time of the upheaval.

Naturally the Shakespeare theme was uppermost during the remaining days that we were together. He had engaged another stenographer, and was now dictating, forenoons, his own views on the subject--views coordinated with those of Mr. Greenwood, whom he liberally quoted, but embellished and decorated in his own gay manner. These were chapters for his autobiography, he said, and I think he had then no intention of making a book of them. I could not quite see why he should take all this argumentary trouble if he had, as he said, positive evidence that Bacon, and not Shakespeare, had written the plays. I thought the whole matter very curious.

The Shakespeare interest had diverging by-paths. One evening, when we were alone at dinner, he said:

"There is only one other illustrious man in history about whom there is so little known," and he added, "Jesus Christ."

He reviewed the statements of the Gospels concerning Christ, though he declared them to be mainly traditional and of no value. I agreed that they contained confusing statements, and inflicted more or less with justice and reason; but I said I thought there was truth in them, too.

"Why do you think so?" he asked.

"Because they contain matters that are self-evident--things eternally and essentially just."

"Then you make your own Bible?"

"Yes, from those materials combined with human reason."

"Then it does not matter where the truth, as you call it, comes from?"

I admitted that the source did not matter; that truth from Shakespeare, Epictetus, or Aristotle was quite as valuable as from the Scriptures. We were on common ground now. He mentioned Marcus Aurelius, the Stoics, and their blameless lives. I, still pursuing the thought of Jesus, asked:

"Do you not think it strange that in that day when Christ came, admitting that there was a Christ, such a character could have come at all--in the time of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, when all was ceremony and unbelief?"

"I remember," he said, "the Sadducees didn't believe in hell. He brought them one."

"Nor the resurrection. He brought them that, also."

He did not admit that there had been a Christ with the character and mission related by the Gospels.

"It is all a myth," he said. "There have been Saviours in every age of the world. It is all just a fairy tale, like the idea of Santa Claus."

"But," I argued, "even the spirit of Christmas is real when it is genuine. Suppose that we admit there was no physical Saviour--that it is only an idea--a spiritual embodiment which humanity has made for itself and is willing to improve upon as its own spirituality improves, wouldn't that make it worthy?"

"But then the fairy story of the atonement dissolves, and with it crumbles the very foundations of any established church. You can create your own Testament, your own Scripture, and your own Christ, but you've got to give up your atonement."

"As related to the crucifixion, yes, and good riddance to it; but the death of the old order and the growth of spirituality comes to a sort of atonement, doesn't it?"

He said:

"A conclusion like that has about as much to do with the Gospels and Christianity as Shakespeare had to do with Bacon's plays. You are preaching a doctrine that would have sent a man to the stake a few centuries ago. I have preached that in my own Gospel."

I remembered then, and realized that, by my own clumsy ladder, I had merely mounted from dogma, and superstition to his platform of training the ideals to a higher contentment of soul.

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