Here we go again


Prospects for Shakespeare biography in 2016.


Shakespeare died in April 1616 so that next year marks an important anniversary.  What we can look forward to are stagings of his less successful and rarely performed plays as well as of some he is only suspected of having a hand in, but also more biographical studies, more lucubrations on the man behind the work.  These are likely to make the recent appearance of James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, the successor to his highly regarded best-seller 1599, like the first few stones that predict the coming avalanche.

          The last flurry of lives of Shakespeare came only ten or twenty years ago.  Then there were biographical studies by such people as Park Honan, Anthony Holden, Stephen Greenblatt, Peter Ackroyd, René Weiss as well as Shapiro, while Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jonathan Bate also milked the cow twice and were collectively responsible for four books.  It was in the face of all this that I vainly tried to put a finger in the dyke and pointed out that it was (or should be) very hard indeed to write another biography of Shakespeare when not a single letter he wrote survives, and the vast majority of the fifty or so contemporary references to him are, from a biographical point of view, worthless.  The little we do know has, moreover, been in the public domain for very many years, and worked over time and time again, while the last significant discovery of new material dates back to 1910.  What interested me were the methods would-be biographers had devised for making bricks without straw, some of which could be entertaining.  There was, for example, what I chose to call the argument from silence, seen in its crudest form in the syllogism that in Elizabethan times it was dangerous to declare oneself a fervent Catholic, there are no clear signs in Shakespeare’s writings he was one so that, ergo, that’s what he must have been.  Only slightly less crude was the habit of making Shakespeare himself responsible for the fact that we know so little about him and concluding from the lack of information that he must, as an individual, have been habitually discreet and secretive.  But the two major resources of the hard-pressed biographer were of course deducing Shakespeare’s character from his writings, a particularly tricky enterprise with playwrights and one in which biographers tend to find whatever they are looking for, and substituting historical background for an absent biographical foreground.  When Shapiro’s 1599 first appeared it was greeted by Jonathan Bate as the most original contribution to Shakespeare biography in decades.  Concentrating on a single year was certainly an innovation but the general method Shapiro employed could be traced back to at least the 19th century and so difficult did he find it to make genuine and legitimate links between what was going on in that year, and what Shakespeare happened to be thinking and feeling at the time, that his sub-title, `A year in the life of William Shakespeare’, became misleading, suggesting as it did that we really know what was happening to his subject in the Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter of 1599.

          Referring to what is known among Shakespeare biographers as `the Manningham anecdote’, Anthony Holden described it as one of those `unverifiable vignettes too good to discard on the grounds of merely dubious provenance’.  Although those of his colleagues who worked in universities would no doubt have thrown up their hands in horror at such an abandon of intellectual responsibility, the policy it suggests is one they frequently adopted also.  Not that it is in fact the provenance which is dubious about the anecdote in question.  John Manningham was a law student who in 1602 recorded in his diary or commonplace book a story which must have been circulating around the Inns of Court.  This was to the effect that one day a woman had been so impressed by Burbage’s performance as Richard III that she invited him to come and visit her in that guise.  Having overheard their conversation, Shakespeare turned up ahead of the arranged time and was `at his game’ before Burbage arrived.  He then sent a message down to his colleague to say that `William the Conqueror was before Richard III’.  The interest of this story is that whereas many of those which relate to Shakespeare date from at least fifty and sometimes a hundred years after his death, this is strictly contemporary.  But that any responsible historian could take seriously an anecdote which is so obviously a joke (if a very feeble one), organised around and perhaps even generated by a punch-line, would seem as incredible as believing that future biographers of George W. Bush will take all the stories which used to circulate about his dimness as reliable guides to the degree of his intelligence.  And yet there is no biography of Shakespeare in which the Manningham anecdote does not feature and Duncan-Jones is able to conclude from it that Shakespeare and Burbage (his company’s leading actor) must have looked alike, and that what it further illustrates is Shakespeare’s lack of respect for women, notoriously apparent for her, and many others of course, in the fact that in his will he apparently left his wife only his second best bed. 

          That a distinguished academic could use evidence in this way will be surprising only to those who have never looked closely at the habits of Shakespeare biographers.  There are such as to generate the nightmare whereby you have been falsely accused of some unspecified crime, walk into courtroom to find every member of the jury has written a life of Shakespeare and know that your goose is cooked.  It is significant that Duncan-Jones uses the Manningham anecdote to reveal both Shakespeare’s appearance as well as his character because what the general public demands to know is not only what Shakespeare was like, what kind of person he was, but also what he looked like.  It was the news that this had now been discovered that led me in May to lay out £3.20 for a copy of Country Life, not my usual magazine reading.  Apart from glossy pictures of houses I did not know anyone could still afford to buy or live in, and adverts directed at those who must have been happy when the government reduced the top rate of tax, this had emblazoned on its cover `Shakespeare: his true likeness revealed at last’, and the announcement of `the greatest discovery in 400 years’.  Inside, the editor trumpeted as `the literary discovery of the century’ the efforts of Mark Griffiths to demonstrate that one of several semi-allegorical figures on the frontispiece of John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants, published in 1598, was a portrait of Shakespeare.  His reasoning was even more speculative than is usual in these cases but what always surprises me about them is how wildly optimistic their proponents usually are about the likely benefits of their one day being proved right.  Perhaps this has to do with the way the only two authenticated portraits, the engraving in what is known as the First Folio of 1623, and the bust in Stratford parish church, tend to disappoint expectations.  The youngish man of the first has been thought by many to look like a timid lawyer’s clerk with hydrocephalus while the expression on the face of the second was once memorably described by Dover Wilson as that of a self-satisfied pork butcher.  But then Titian was involved in neither and, even if he had been, there would be every reason for heeding rather more than he himself does Duncan’s warning in Macbeth that `there’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face’.

          Arguments for newly discovered portraits of Shakespeare come and go, like so many other startling new claims relating to his life.  Around the turn of this century everyone was discussing how likely it was that, in the period between leaving school and turning up as a leading member of one of London’s theatre companies, in (that is) his so-called `lost years’ — a cunning expression in that it implies that the rest of them have been found — Shakespeare went to Lancashire as tutor to the children in a Catholic household.  This never quite gained full acceptance but became a luxuriant growth of speculation which seems today to have been blown away because it had no roots, no real facts to support and confirm it.  Since this has been the fate of almost all new `discoveries’ about Shakespeare’s life, you would think that journalists would announce them more soberly.  But bad habits are hard to shake off and the publishers are much to blame in offering juicy contracts to anyone who can write what they can market as `a new biography of Britain’s greatest writer’.  My own complaint was that academics, as supposed defenders of intellectual standards, should have nothing to do with all this, and that succumbing to temptation was a trahison des clercs.  This seemed especially the case in that the authors of the biographies were often at the top of their profession so that, in qualifying to be a biographer, they became like athletes who participate in rigorous international competitions in order to be offered the opportunity to take part in what, given the limitations of data, is a traditional British sack race.  Not that their books are uninteresting: historical background may continually have to stand in for genuine biographical knowledge but it can nonetheless be absorbing.  Few popular historians have written as well as Jonathan Bate about the `Essex rising’ (the Earl not the county), and if you want to know about the Gunpowder plot, Shapiro is your man.  That Shakespeare was involved in either of these important historical events in a significant way is quite another matter so that the objection is not to popular history in itself but to its presentation in the guise of biography.  Yet when academics won’t hold the line, there seems little hope that anyone else will be doing so in 2016.  If I had the kind of income which enabled me to look with anything other than open-mouthed bewilderment at the houses advertised in Country Life, I could think of slipping away for a while until the storm blows over.  As it is, I can only stiffen with apprehension as I read that Hodder and Stoughton are giving half a million pounds to Boris Johnson, the same Boris Johnson who as mayor of London one would thought was pretty busy, so that he can write a new life of Shakespeare which will be out next October.  There is, as Eric Morecombe used to say, no answer to that.

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