Why do people read a biography of Shakespeare? Either as a substitute for or as a supplement to a reading of his work. I may read about Byron or Orton because the life itself is both well-documented and well worth watching; but Shakespeare’s life is neither. How he behaved, what he endured, who he knew, where he went – such information does not expand or deepen my grasp of human possibility, as in their different ways the history of Thomas More or John Milton does. The extant marks of Shakespeare’s mortal passage don’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the world or the human. The works – various and ambiguous as they are – tell us something about both; the life doesn’t. Instead, far more often, we must apply our pre-fabricated theories about the world and the human in order to interpret the artifacts and ambifacts before us.
So why write about the life, instead of the works? The life is a cover for an interpretation of the works; it gives the pretence of objectivity and the pleasure of narrative to a few hundred pages of critical fiat. Russell Fraser’s Shakespeare: The Later Years contains 88 pages of notes (the text itself is only 280 pages); but the overwhelming majority are simply line-references to phrases culled from Shakespeare’s plays and poems, verbal glitter with which Fraser decorates his own rococo prose. Some pages of notes (290, 296, 300 ...) consist entirely of such citations, and some pages of text consist largely of such quotations (pages 50 to 57, for instance, contain 80).
This is the second half of a two-part biography; Young Shakespeare, published in 1988, is now in paperback, and we can probably look forward to a boxed set, which ambitious grandparents will bestow upon thousands of helpless teenagers. Both volumes give the impression of serious documentation, and quite a few people have taken the biography as a serious piece of scholarship. But Fraser’s apparatus tells you almost nothing that you could not find yourself, assisted merely by a concordance, and the same is true of Fraser’s text, a recitation of numbingly conventional interpretations of the works, dangling from a thin, dirty-from-overuse string of biography. For anyone at all familiar with this subject or this period, having to read both volumes is like being forced to eat, hour after hour, mouthful after mouthful of stale cake.
The moral – or premise – of Fraser’s story is that Shakespeare is the greatest: ‘he had no rivals, ancient or modern.’ Admirers of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe or anyone else, see ye the error of your ways, and repent: abandon your idols, and worship the one true god. Fraser devotes three and a half pages (pages 170-74) to the whole of Jacobean drama, brusquely dismissing Webster and Jonson and Ford, not even mentioning Middleton – except to dismiss The Revenger’s Tragedy, which he continues to misattribute to Tourneur – apparently as uninterested in the last two decades of textual scholarship as he is in the first two decades of 17th-century drama. Shakespeare stands alone. Good monotheism, but bad biography.
What, in the gospel according to St Fraser, makes Shakespeare so great? He is unfailingly impartial. He has no opinions, and expresses them beautifully. St Fraser, by contrast, is full of opinions, which unassisted readers will often have difficulty distinguishing from facts. On page three alone, he asserts, without qualification, that The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s ‘first attempt at comedy’, that three of his first plays were printed by ‘pirate publishers’, that by 1594 Shakespeare was already known for ‘kingly roles and old man’s roles’. The first claim is at best debatable, the other two simply wrong.
Dennis Kay’s biography is altogether more respectable. He has only a dozen pages of notes, but they direct readers to major sources and divergent views. He has not closed his eyes and swallowed everything done in the last decade; but he hasn’t closed his eyes and spat it out either. His prose and persona are as self-effacing as Fraser’s are exhibitionist. The result is a decent ‘chronological introduction to the works of Shakespeare in the context of their age’. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. Mostly, though, I don’t care, because, being an introduction, this book does not aspire to discovery.
Barroll, de Grazia, and Razzell, by contrast, all say something genuinely new. None is a biographer; none offers the pleasures of narrative, or the illusion of a whole life, or the interpretive transformation of a work which a knowledge of the author’s life can sometimes catalyse. Nevertheless, unlike Fraser and Kay, Barroll and de Grazia and Razzell all made me think again about a life I thought I knew.
Peter Razzell’s is the slightest of these three books, but it makes two important contributions to any reading of William Shakespeare’s life in Stratford. First, it places the career of William’s father John in the larger contexts of Stratford’s economic and demographic development, of the expanding Tudor class of individual traders, and of the commodity market in wool. A sudden and catastrophic loss of investment capital is, of course, one of the inevitable hazards of commodity speculation. The eventual economic collapse of John’s business – which must have had major economic and psychological consequences for his eldest son – has long puzzled biographers: it should puzzle them no longer. But Razzell also, in re-reading the various lawsuits involving him, argues persuasively that John – like many speculators – was a bit of a con-artist, whose cons eventually caught up with him. In a trade based so heavily on debt, a reputation for probity is an indispensable asset, and the loss of that asset was much more damaging to John’s business than any single botched investment. In Razzell’s account, John Shakespeare was a charming liar and alcoholic, eventually rejected by his son. (Enter Sir John: ‘Do thou stand for my father?’)
And what of the wild youth of our prince of poets? The story of William the poacher, caught red-handed by Sir William Lucy, has been dismissed by most modern biographers, on the grounds that Lucy did not own a park from which William could have poached deer. Razzell, looking at the 1588 Sheldon Tapestry Map of Worcestershire in the Victoria and Albert Museum, finds such a park right where the story says there was one. Razzell also surveys much other evidence, topographical and legal, and to my mind amply confirms the credibility of the deer-stealing anecdote. (Exit Shakespeare to London.)
Shakespeare in London is the man who interests Leeds Barroll, who deploys an impressive variety of primary sources to reinterpret the shape of Shakespeare’s Jacobean career. Especially important is his corrective account of the court’s attitude to popular drama. It has become orthodox to assert that James I tied the theatre much more closely to the state than had Elizabeth I, increasing its prestige while decreasing its independence. Barroll demolishes this hypothesis, systematically and irresistibly. James’s own attitude to plays remained dismissive; the social status of actors could hardly have been lower; the rise in the number of court performances reflected no new enthusiasm for drama, but a sudden increase in the size of the royal family, for whom plays were formal occasions which had little to do with entertainment; plays continued to be performed only in season, and were paid for at a rate which had not risen (even for inflation) since the early days of Elizabeth. Only literary critics could imagine that James I, in the hectic first months when he was securing a new kingdom, focused his mind on aesthetic policy. There is no evidence that anyone at court ‘recognised Shakespeare’s genius’.
The plague was more important than the court in setting Shakespeare’s agenda. Barroll gives an engrossing thirty-page account of the nature, causes and treatment of the disease. He then tracks plague fatalities from 1603 to 1611, trying to determine when the theatres were closed because of the infection, and when they would have been open for the premiere of various plays by Shakespeare.
Most of this argument about theatre closings was first published in 1965, and though it has been overlooked by many scholars, it significantly influenced my own account of the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (1987). Though you would not know it from the form of his footnotes – which always refer to my essay on ‘Canon and Chronology’ as a set of page numbers in a book by ‘Wells et al’ – I am the intended target of a number of Barroll’s polemical asides, and hence am hardly a perfectly objective reviewer.
In some cases Barroll has changed my mind: I think he provides (in Appendix Three) a good explanation for theatre closings in three summers in the 1590s, and hence undermines my account of the normal London playing season. But I remain convinced that Barroll does a disservice to his own (important) evidence by trying to stretch it too far. For instance, he alleges that theatres remained closed in March 1604, at a time when authorities allowed the (potentially much more infectious) public festivities associated with the King’s official entry into London. The theatres are known to have been open in April, but he tells us that Othello and Measure for Measure ‘could not have been’ performed later than the end of that month – even though the official mortality limit was not reached until 24 May, and then dropped in the middle of June and through July. Similarly, though Bartholomew Fair was allowed to open in August, Barroll insists that the possibility of theatrical performances ‘seems dubious’.
This argument about the dating of Othello and Measure – and a number of other plays – is also dependent on the view that playing always ‘presumably stopped for Lent’. Barroll devotes an appendix to this issue, but the contradictory evidence there does not reveal any pattern of behaviour consistent enough to warrant his confidence. Even the records he cites in support of Lenten stoppage include cases where playing clearly continued for one week or even three weeks into Lent, and documents in which a Lenten prohibition is combined with other restrictions (like playing only twice a week) which we know were not enforced, and a document which calls for playing to be stopped (which implies that it is going on, three weeks after Ash Wednesday). But Barroll’s constructed chronology routinely rules out all of Lent, every year.
Again and again, gaps in the evidence are filled by such claims, and the record is always interpreted as pessimistically as possible, in order to reduce the number of days when the theatres could have been open. Moreover, in defence of his own evidence, Barroll must attack every other kind of evidence. Stylistic tests are dismissed as a kind of arithmetic rhetoric, and topical allusions as optical illusions. No doubt these strictures will be applauded and repeated by people who know nothing about either, but I am not convinced. It is simply a coincidence, Barroll assures us, that king Lear was written at about the same time as ‘these late eclipses of the sun and moon’ to which the play appears to allude. And the talk of equivocation in Macbeth bears no relation to Father Barnet’s defence of equivocation in his trial for treason in March 1606. Such an allusion, according to Barroll, would only really have been topical in ‘a two-week period’ from 20 April to 3 May. After that, it was old news, displaced from the popular consciousness by the Venetian expulsion of Jesuits, and such. Hence, it cannot support arguments that Macbeth was written in July or August.
What difference does any of this make? Barroll constructs a ‘discontinuous’ Shakespeare, whose genius comes in spurts. ‘Shakespearean production was not a symmetrically implemented plan but behaviour greatly influenced by opportunities for playing’; the Bard did not bother to be bardic when the theatres were closed. But Barroll himself demonstrates that openings and closings were unpredictable. How could a playwright delay composing until the theatres were opened when he didn’t know how long they would stay opened? Besides, Barroll’s narrative of openings and closings, even if accurate, would only be relevant to ‘the first known performance’ (page 20) – which need have nothing to do with dates of composition, especially in a period when the playing season was disrupted. Barroll nevertheless wants to deploy that narrative to make claims about Shakespeare’s patterns of composition.
In the end, for all Barroll’s theoretical curlicues, his outline of Shakespeare resembles Fraser’s. Both separate the author from political pressures and topical issues; both offer a narrative of ‘astonishing production’. It has long seemed that Shakespeare’s productivity declined in the second half of his career, but no, Barroll assures us that Shakespeare (one of the ‘literary figures who tower against the traditions of Western culture’) ‘wrote quickly and prolifically in the Stuart period when the theatre was available to him’. What had seemed fitful deceleration is instead ‘perhaps the ultimate tribute to Shakespeare’s creativity’.
The Shakespeare Barroll and Fraser share has been familiar since the late 18th century, and Margreta de Grazia analyses the conditions of his emergence. A whole book devoted to ‘the 1790 Apparatus’ may seem unpromising to anyone but bibliography-wonks, but de Grazia recognises that modern conceptions of authorship originate in the Enlightenment, and that the literary ideology of the Enlightenment finds its most condensed embodiment in editorial practice. The first biographies of Shakespeare were, after all, published in 18th-century editions, and chronology originated as an editorial problem first tackled systematically by Capell and Malone.
Only one chapter of Shakespeare Verbatim treats biography and chronology, but that one chapter throws more light on its subject than any of these other books. Consider, for instance, the deer-poaching incident. The modern rejection of those accounts began with Malone, and though his rejection appears to be grounded in documentary evidence, de Grazia shows that it was part of a sustained ideological project. ‘In every instance, the traditional accounts that conflicted with Shakespeare’s respectability were rejected as factually inaccurate while those which confirmed it were validated.’ Similarly, the purpose of chronology, for Malone, was to establish a developmental progression which would enable the reader ‘to mark the gradations by which [Shakespeare] rose from mediocrity to the summit of excellence, from artless and sometimes uninteresting dialogues, to those unparalleled compositions’: Barroll offers a different chronology, but the motive for his chronology is no less bardolatrous.
Anyone interested in biography or editing – that is, anyone interested in literary representation – should read Shakespeare Verbatim. This is not to say that I agree with everything in it. For one thing, it systematically exaggerates the differences between Malone and his editorial precursors, in order to construct a sharp Foucauldian divide before and after 1790. Many of the specific practices which de Grazia analyses can be found in earlier 18th-century sources. The concern with authenticity, periodicity and individuality, which Malone systematised, had begun long before.
Indeed, it began in the Renaissance itself, with humanist editing of Classical texts. It is true (as de Grazia notes) that Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) used the same generic woodcut as a representation of 26 different English kings; but it is also true (as she does not note) that the title-page of Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624) depicts, with scandalous specificity, King James, Prince Charles, the Duke of Buckingham, King Philip of Spain, Count Gondomar, the Bishop of Spalatro and others. Again, Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl (1611) depicts that very particular individual Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse. Whatever ideas Shakespeare may have had, Middleton had ideas about individuality long before he should have. De Grazia criticises Malone’s bardolatry, but she also unconsciously reproduces it, by equating the Renaissance with Shakespeare. There are other lives waiting to be written; other works waiting to be edited; other Renaissances waiting to be reborn.