Every year, on a Saturday morning in April, the miscellaneous participants in the most improbably charming event in the official national calendar gather for a cup of tea in the Georgian town hall of a small market town in the West Midlands. There is a great deal of scarlet in evidence, in the robes of the assembled Council and of sundry invited academics, white in the vestments of the local clergy, and a respectable quantity of gold in the mayoral chains of office; there are any number of sombre grey suits on visiting diplomats and corporate sponsors; and outside the sunshine, if there is any, glints from the brass instruments and buttons of a military band. More unusually for such an unostentatiously English and provincial event, the procession into which this ill-assorted group will shortly be organised also includes people dressed in simulated buckram and taffeta and the gleaming mock-silver of property breastplates and crowns, all of them borrowed from the second-best wardrobe of the Royal Shakespeare Company in order to deck out students and members of local amateur dramatic societies as representative characters from each of Shakespeare’s plays. This is Stratford-upon-Avon on the weekend after 23 April, a day celebrated since the 18th century as Shakespeare’s Birthday. As Park Honan’s impressive new biography reminds us, the parish records for 1564 make it certain only that he was christened on 26 April, and our knowledge of contemporary church practice suggests that Shakespeare’s real birthday is just as likely to have been 21 or 22 April. But it has become obvious that if the National Poet wasn’t born on St George’s Day it can only have been through an oversight which we have a duty to overlook.
What is more immediately striking than the Armistice-Day-cum-carnival appearance of Shakespeare’s state birthday party, though, is its smell. Every member of a parade which by 11 a.m. will stretch through the middle of the town is wearing a large sprig of rosemary. (That, courtesy of Ophelia, is for remembrance, though the scent seems less funereal than paschal.) Most celebrants are also carrying substantial mixed bouquets – in the economic life of Stratford’s florists, Shakespeare is nearly as important as St Valentine or Mother – which at the close of their ritual progress from the Birthplace on Henley Street to Holy Trinity Church by the river they will solemnly lay on Shakespeare’s grave, or at least will pass to a parish volunteer nearby, to be added to a pile which must make Harvest Festival look like a poor relation. In quasi-Hellenic fashion, a vegetable cult has developed at the shrine of the local hero, a cult which Anglicanism bravely struggles to co-opt at the next morning’s annual Shakespeare Service. During this unusual ceremony stars from the RSC will perform the Bible readings, and a specially commissioned theologian will attempt to prove that the Complete Works are really all about the glory of God (having reminded the congregation that the retired playwright ended his days as a ‘lay rector’, though probably without mentioning that Shakespeare acquired this pious distinction by buying a lucrative interest in the parish’s tithes).
At Stratford on this Saturday, however, it is impossible not to recognise Bardolatry as a rival religion in its own right, its yearly jamboree as eclectically fertile as the dramatic canon it nominally celebrates. With the flower-bearing pilgrims attended on their journey from Birthplace to Tomb by worryingly sacrificial-looking local schoolchildren, all walking in time to regimental trumpets and the inane jingling of morris-dancers, the Immortal invoked and perhaps appeased by all this partakes at once of municipal worthy, folk hero, national icon, monarch, pagan god, Catholic saint and Messiah. (The last analogy is made all but inescapable by the name of Shakespeare’s mother, and even as sober an account of his life as Honan’s sounds at times like a Victorian carol: ‘In early life he must have been the focus of Mary’s very urgently watchful, intense love.’) If Shakespeare’s birthday belongs to a priesthood it isn’t Holy Trinity’s but the threefold local clerisy made up of the Shakespeare Institute, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (earthly representatives of Shakespeare the writer, Shakespeare the dramatist and Shakespeare the man respectively), and at this annual sacrament of their common faith it is the last which takes precedence. To undertake a new full-scale biography of William Shakespeare, then, or to suggest a major alteration to our understanding of the playwright’s early life, is to walk directly onto holy ground: in setting out to produce Shakespeare: A Life and Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’, Park Honan and E.A.J. Honigmann have taken on tasks which are about as uncontroversial as resurveying the street map of Jerusalem.
Honan’s is the first full-length scholarly biography of Shakespeare to appear since the death of Samuel Schoenbaum, who was undoubtedly the greatest of all modern biographical scholars but who never published a conventional Life. There has been a continuing stream of almost research-free popular Lives and would-be popular Lives (a genre ably parodied by Patrick Barlow’s Shakespeare: The Truth, or, From Glover to Genius, 1993), as well as important work on particular phases or aspects of the Bard’s life by Honigmann, Stanley Wells and others, but Shakespeare: A Life can make some claim to be the first sustained scholarly attempt on its subject since the books written by Edgar Fripp and E.K. Chambers in the Twenties. Its very existence is the symptom of a quiet renaissance in a branch of Shakespeare studies which for much of this century has languished in intellectual disrepute. Just as the Birthday celebrations seem to preserve echoes of Empire Day (and actually derive, in their current form, from the junketings designed for the tercentenaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death in 1864 and 1916 respectively), Shakespearean biography itself has long been regarded as an inherently dated enterprise. Although the activities of the contemporary theatre and the contemporary academy have kept the Shakespeare canon strenuously up to the minute, its author has remained a rather Edwardian figure, seen as belonging less to present-day scholarship than to nostalgic tourism. Even among Shakespearean scholars, the attempt to deduce what sort of person might have left those particular traces and written those particular plays has often been considered as cosily middlebrow and mock-Tudor as the dining-room of a bed-and-breakfast. While all shades of political, anthropological, religious and aesthetic readings of Shakespeare’s texts have proliferated, the biographical has been the critical approach which dared not speak its name. When Schoenbaum announced in the Fifties that he was about to embark on a major book about Shakespeare’s life, his New Critical colleagues, zealous and implacable foes of the intentional fallacy, begged him to reconsider. Surely biography, like history, was precisely the sort of down-market, empirical stuff from which as professionals it was their duty to rescue literary texts?
Schoenbaum’s work nonetheless secured tremendous intellectual respect among his peers despite its subject-matter, not only because of the sheer scale and accuracy of its scholarship, but because it always maintained a careful distance between itself and the expectations of biographical form. His masterpiece, the wonderful Shakespeare’s Lives (1970, revised 1991), is a book which could have been dreamed up (though not written, or at least not nearly so well) by a Post-Modern novelist. Rather than being a biography of Shakespeare, it is an 800-page history of all the previous biographies of Shakespeare, from the smallest jottings of 17th-century antiquaries to the wildest conspiracy theories entertained by modern paranoiacs; but far from dwindling into an epic annotated bibliography, Shakespeare’s Lives blossoms into a detailed biography of the culture which has been speculating and fantasising about Shakespeare since his death. The nearest Schoenbaum came to producing a conventional biography is the magisterial William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975, slightly revised as A Compact Documentary Life, 1977, 1987), which, rather than supplying a definitive account of Shakespeare’s personal development of the kind that would be found in a 19th-century novel, provides a discontinuous archive of photographic facsimiles (reproducing all Shakespeare’s known appearances in ecclesiastical records, court account books, legal documents and so on), set in a narrative largely devoted to explaining their nature and their provenance. In the tradition of Edmond Malone and Sir Sidney Lee, Schoenbaum was minutely conversant with the written records of Shakespeare’s life and career, but this antiquarian proficiency was complicated by his equally formidable knowledge of the radically changing desires and assumptions which have conditioned their interpretation. His work ruefully acknowledges that our sense of who William Shakespeare was usually depends less on the evidence than on the current repertoire of stories by which we fashion and refashion our idols.
However visibly his predecessor casts a shadow over his work, Park Honan, already the author of Lives of Jane Austen and Matthew Arnold, doesn’t share the diffidence about the status or value of orthodox literary biography that Schoenbaum’s books seem to betray. Shakespeare: A Life, formally speaking, belongs as unabashedly to an older school of Life-writing as its opening sentence might suggest: ‘Shakespeare’s life began near the reflecting, gleaming river Avon, which today flows past Stratford’s Church of the Holy Trinity where he lies buried, and past a theatre where his dramas are seen and heard by visitors from all nations.’ Honan doesn’t devote any space to wondering why some incidents should have bulked larger in popular conceptions of Shakespeare than others, nor does he patch together Shakespeare’s life from a series of disputes between rival scholars over particular scraps of parchment: all such material is compressed into a single ten-page appendix on ‘the Shakespeare biographical tradition and sources for his life’. Instead, Shakespeare: A Life evenly and fluently recounts a life of Shakespeare, from ‘A Stratford Youth’ through ‘Actor and Poet of the London Stage’ and ‘The Maturity of Genius’ to ‘The Last Phase’, with every handsome double-page opening conveniently marked at the top with the date and Shakespeare’s age at this stage in the proceedings. Significantly, the book ends abruptly on 23 April 1616, the (certain) date of Shakespeare’s death: for Honan, Shakespeare’s posthumous fame and the continuing arguments about him are a distraction rather than part of his subject.
As one reads beyond Honan’s hackneyed opening gambit into an unusually vivid, detailed and scrupulous account of the plague-infected and faction-ridden Stratford of the 1550s and 1560s, it becomes clear that his formal reaction against Schoenbaum’s apparent relativism is accompanied by a sense that if his more visibly self-conscious precursor erred, it was actually on the side of sentiment. On the few occasions when Honan finds reason to correct Schoenbaum (which he does with a quiet but clear satisfaction), it is always to extirpate some residual romantic indulgence. The pleasant notion that Shakespeare’s father might have taken his ten-year-old son to Coventry to see the entertainments laid on for Queen Elizabeth is firmly quashed (there’s no evidence for any such excursion and Tudor family life wasn’t like that), and, as if as an emblem of the fate of all such sweetly decorative fancies, even Schoenbaum’s account of the pretty bedroom walls at the Oxford winetavern where Shakespeare received the hospitality of the attractive Mistress Jennet Davenant has to go (an inventory proves that their pattern of vines and flowers had been covered up with plain wainscoting long before the Davenants took over the establishment). Honan has one or two soft spots of his own, however: when sifting through the hearsay which accumulated in the years after the playwright’s death he shows a clear preference for material which presents Shakespeare as a retiring, responsible figure not at all given to debauchery (although there are counter-stories with at least equal claims to credence which depict him as the blithe seducer of citizens’ wives), and while Schoenbaum was deeply suspicious of the folkloric rumours which would like the National Poet to have had a touch of Robin Hood about him, Honan does not dismiss the venerable legend that the young Shakespeare used to poach deer on the estates of local aristocrats. But for the most part Shakespeare: A Life is colourful only where the record strictly warrants it.
Colouring in the record is what this book does best. Honan’s particular flair is for the vivid dramatic reconstruction of small incidents recorded only fleetingly by contemporary documents, such as the unrest over grain shortages in Stratford in 1598 (during which Shakespeare, unamiably, hoarded malt), or Shakespeare’s retreat to Augustine Phillips’s house at Mortlake during the plague of 1603, or his involvement as an intermediary in the marriage negotiations between Mary Mountjoy, daughter of the French Protestant family with whom Shakespeare lodged near the Barbican in 1604, and their apprentice, Stephen Belott (who subsequently obliged Shakespeare to testify in a lawsuit over the non-payment of £60 supposedly promised to him as a dowry). Beyond this at once rigorous and imaginative way with the evidence, what Honan’s book principally adds to Schoenbaum’s still invaluable work is a far greater depth of context for what we knew already.
Honan’s other strength as a Bardographer is that he is as familiar with current thinking about Shakespeare as a poet and dramatist as he is with the state of informed opinion about Shakespeare’s position as a 16th and 17th-century Warwickshire property-holder. While recent Shakespearean criticism has been no more comfortable with the idea that it might matter how many children Shakespeare had than it has with untheorised speculations about the number born to Lady Macbeth, it has nonetheless been prepared to look afresh at the relations between the plays and their different historical and cultural milieux. Shakespeare: A Life is thus enriched not only by recent studies of the biographical archive (notably David Thomas’s Shakespeare in the Public Records, 1985, and Robert Bearman’s Shakespeare in the Stratford Records, 1994) but by the work of Peter Thomson and Andrew Gurr on the fortunes of Elizabethan acting companies, or of Douglas Bruster on Troilus and Cressida and the language of Jacobean economics, or of R.A. Foakes and Stephen Greenblatt on the contexts of King Lear. This is one biography which doesn’t forget that by far the most interesting residue left by Shakespeare’s life is his writings.
Thus, instead of simply describing the curriculum Shakespeare studied at his Stratford grammar school, Honan offers a lively and persuasive account of his lifelong negotiation with its literary influence, and instead of simply assuming that once he had become a major shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Shakespeare had a stable, subsidised professional base for his art (rather along the lines of the old RSC), Honan records the effect on Shakespeare’s writing career of an endless series of financial crises (much more like the experience of the current RSC). Few readers will be wholly convinced by all Honan’s interpretations of the works, however: to describe the Venus of Venus and Adonis as ‘a Shoreditch bordello-madam on the rampage’, for instance, seems well off the mark, and it is odd that Honan should discuss the impact on Shakespeare’s work of the death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet, twin to the surviving Judith, without examining Twelfth Night – a play which, poignantly, wants Viola’s resemblance to her apparently drowned twin Sebastian to be sufficient to keep him alive (‘I my brother know/Yet living in my glass,’ she remarks), and which concludes by restoring him to her in a wish-fulfilling reunion far more emotionally charged than the marriages it permits. But at least Honan displays a critical engagement with the Shakespeare canon with which one can disagree.
Any life of Shakespeare, though, however well-written and well-informed, is likely to be judged less by its incidental sidelights on the plays and poems than by the success with which it answers the questions about the playwright which most of his modern readers have at some time found themselves asking. What was Shakespeare doing before he set about becoming Shakespeare? Did he, as E.A.J. Honigmann argues in Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’ (first published to considerable éclat in 1985 and now revised and reprinted), go to Lancashire to serve as tutor to a family of upper-class Catholics, appearing in a will of 1581 as ‘William Shakeshafte’? Can we deduce what sort of relations existed between Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, whom he married when he was only 18 and she was 26 and pregnant, and whom he appears to have abandoned in Stratford with three children to bring up while he made his fortune in London? Was he as callous a husband as that notorious bequest of the second-best bed seems to imply? Do the Sonnets indicate that he enjoyed illicit relationships with an aristocratic young man and a promiscuous dark lady which even Clinton would have had to describe as sexual? Do the details of his pursuit of real estate and a coat of arms confirm Marxist criticism’s picture of an author whose prodigious talents were always at the service of a grasping upward mobility?
Honan’s answer to all these questions, rather disappointingly, is yes and no. However he may disparage the format of the merely documentary life, his confidence seems to fail him when the gaps in the written record leave him with only his own conjectures to fall back on. Far from arguing for a single vision of William Shakespeare consistent with all the evidence, and however brilliantly it may flesh out the individual stories behind the Belott-Mountjoy suit or the grant of arms or the trouble over the enclosures at Wellcombe, Honan’s book hedges its bets whenever we get too close to the key questions. Where the facts are unambiguously clear, he can be splendidly direct, as in his lucid statement of the 20-year-old Shakespeare’s position just before he temporarily vanishes from the written record in 1585: ‘The birth of twins virtually assured that Shakespeare’s future would be more problematic, that he would be concerned to make up for lost time in a calling, and would undertake nearly anything required of him to get money.’ But where Honan has only dubious latterday gossip and his own instincts to guide him, he is frustratingly non-commital; his readers soon learn to expect him to unsay later much of what he appears to be saying now.
So it is that we learn that as an actor Shakespeare played Old Hamlet, Adam, Friar Laurence, John of Gaunt, Henry IV, Egeon and Duncan, but then again perhaps he didn’t, since all we have in support of this claim is a late rumour and some unverifiable computer analysis. Shakespeare’s will seems to confirm a well-established estrangement from not just Anne but all his Hathaway in-laws, but then again the couple’s failure to produce any more children after 1585 can be explained by the gynaecological problems often caused at the time by the birth of twins. Shakespeare’s long-term interests were all centred on Stratford, but then again he bought an expensive house close to his company’s second theatre at Blackfriars only three years before his death. Understandably, Honan’s equivocation is most marked when dealing with the Sonnets, which have entrapped so many generations of commentators into fatally betraying their own fantasies and their own anxieties, but it surrounds many other aspects of the Shakespeare canon too. ‘It was never unwise to flatter the Queen,’ Honan remarks early on in connection with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but later, noting the apparent critique of her virginity which the same play implies, he explains that Shakespeare ‘was not hostile to his Queen, but he would have jeopardised his troupe’s profitability by court-toadying’.
The most damaging instance of this tendency is Honan’s handling of the teenage Shakespeare’s alleged sojourn among the Lancashire recusants, first put forward by Oliver Baker in 1937 but given much fuller and more closely argued treatment by Honigmann. One might expect a biographer to feel obliged to pass judgment as to whether an episode with such far-reaching implications actually happened or not, but Honan declines to make this decision, writing a chapter describing in detail what it might have been like for the young Shakespeare up north but calling it only ‘an alternative narrative’. ‘The evidence, to date, relating to his possible stay in Lancashire is neither dismissible nor certain,’ he explains, but a great deal of the evidence is like that, and it is hard to see how one can offer even the most provisional account of someone’s life without dismissing some sustainable hypotheses and accepting others. It is perfectly possible, perhaps even necessary, to imagine a Shakespeare who both loved and loathed Anne and Stratford alike, who was profoundly ambivalent about the Anglican monarchy which his work had no choice but to serve, and whose sonnets reveal a temperament which was and wasn’t sexually orthodox. Indeed, one of the achievements of Honan’s masterly explication of the Belott-Mountjoy affair is to reveal how two-faced and non-committal Shakespeare could be, his testimony blandly and persuasively supporting the claims of both parties to the suit. (Moral: never call a witness who suffers from negative capability.) But it is much harder to imagine a Shakespeare who both did and didn’t spend his adolescence in Lancashire.
Honan can hardly be blamed for the incompleteness of the evidence, however, and while Shakespeare: A Life isn’t supposed to be a bald summary of that evidence it isn’t a historical novel either. It is characteristic of biographies of Shakespeare that they should leave us wondering about certain aspects of his life-story, but at the end of this one we are at least wondering from a position of greater strength, tantalised by some much better defined questions. For example, if we abandon a teleological, Dick Whittingtonesque vision of the youthful Shakespeare determinedly setting off for London specifically in order to become the greatest playwright of all time (having made some private Faustian bargain with himself that this will inevitably be at the expense of his family life), what are we to believe took Shakespeare into the theatres of the metropolis? On the face of it few career moves could seem more unlikely for the heir to a provincial glove-making business with three young children to support, however good with words he may have been at school. If at the same time we reject the idea that he had been recruited to a Catholic underworld by his schoolteachers and that this ultimately brought him into the acting company patronised by Lord Strange (a case meticulously assembled by Honigmann, but to my mind at least still unproven), there are surely detective enquiries still to be made about Shakespeare’s father’s connections in London and the alternative errands or possibilities which might have taken William to the capital. Even once he is established as a leading dramatist, we still don’t know exactly how Shakespeare managed to make such a good living out of the theatre (Honan’s account of the profession stresses its economic uncertainties, and he is correspondingly vague about the precise terms on which we are to see the actor/shareholder/playwright being paid the impressive sums of money which he invested in his houses in Stratford and London and all that land), so there is more work to be done with a calculator and on Elizabethan theatrical financing by the rival biographers, notably Katherine Duncan-Jones, who are already hard on Honan’s heels. But in the meantime Park Honan has produced a highly readable book which is more reliable about more aspects of Shakespeare’s life and career than any other currently on the market, and his honourable place in the Birthday’s triumphant procession from Birthplace to Tomb is surely secure – whether he chooses to celebrate on 21, 22 or 23 April, or on all three to be on the safe side, and whether or not his route includes a detour via Lancashire.