As I was reading Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare on the train there was a woman sitting near me doing a deal on the phone. She was getting agitated. ‘But I have to transfer the money to Mr Shakespeare himself,’ she said. ‘No … Listen, I really need to speak to Mr Shakespeare. Can you put me through? Hello? … Hello?’ Then the line went dead.
It was, like some of the anecdotes with which Greenblatt used to begin his essays in the heyday of New Historicism, too good to be true, though I swear this is what I heard her say. Generations of literary biographers have wanted to get through to Mr Shakespeare, or have, as Greenblatt once said, begun ‘with the desire to speak with the dead’. And there’s quite a lot of money at stake, too, in this particular piece of necrophony. Greenblatt’s biography is, as I write, ranked 271 in Amazon’s UK sales list (41 in the US), while the Arden edition of King Lear is ranked 13,791 (309,493 in the US). People are a lot more likely to buy books about Shakespeare’s life than they are to buy books by Shakespeare.
The money generated in this way never gets through to Mr Shakespeare, of course, though he did well enough out of his commercial interests in the theatre. William Shakespeare was the son of a glover who sold wool on the side. From the later 1570s his father seems to have been losing his status as a civic worthy and falling into debt. In 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. By 1592 he was in London, and by the mid-to-late 1590s had become a ‘sharer’ (profit-sharing partner) in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As a result of the commercial success of the company he was able in 1597 to buy New Place, one of the smartest houses in Stratford. By 1605 he had invested the huge sum of £440 in buying leases of tithes from the Stratford corporation, which would ensure a steady income for himself and his heirs. He was never above suing: in 1604 he took his neighbour Philip Rogers to court for a debt of 35 shillings and ten pence. When a group of local notables sought late in his life to enclose common land near Stratford, he prudently did not interfere, once he had satisfied himself that his income from tithes was safe. The legal record of his life suggests a person of more than average acquisitiveness, and of considerably more than average success.
Shakespeare’s business deals were never referred to in the earliest writings about his life, which tended instead to provide scraps of gossip that might give insights into his character and conversation. John Aubrey related that Shakespeare was the son of a butcher who ‘when he killed a calf would do it in high style, and make a speech’. By the early 18th century, Shakespearean biography was turning into something of an industry, with an indiscriminate appetite for fact and rumour. Nicholas Rowe’s life, appended to his 1709 edition of the plays, was based partly on information gleaned by the actor Thomas Betterton from descendants of people who might have gossiped or drunk with Shakespeare. Rowe established many of the paradigms for later lives: he inferred the ethical characteristics of the author from his high view of the plays. Shakespeare had to be gentle, because the plays are so wonderful. He had to be witty, because the plays are. And he had to be a bit naughty because that’s how artists tend to be. So Rowe gave us a Shakespeare who was enough of a wag to fall into bad company, steal deer from the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, and then satirise the victim of his crime in a ballad as well as in The Merry Wives of Windsor. As Shakespeare’s reputation grew he had to become hardworking and lovable, too. So in 1765 Samuel Johnson appended to Rowe’s life the story that when young Will was doing time as the early modern equivalent of a car-park attendant, looking after playgoers’ horses outside a London theatre, ‘he became so conspicuous for his care and readiness, that in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will Shakespeare.’
The desire to hear Shakespeare’s voice and feel his moral nature through anecdotes about his life was, by the end of the 18th century, replaced by a desire to find Shakespeare’s will and Shakespeare’s writs, and even Shakespeare’s shopping lists, if they could be dug out of a dungheap near Stratford. Edmond Malone was the key figure in this transformation. He digested a huge number of documents about Shakespeare for his biography, which appeared in 1790 along with his edition of the plays. He reviled Rowe’s ‘meagre and imperfect narrative’, and proved to his own satisfaction that eight of the 11 facts in Rowe’s life were false. The story of the deer-stealing in particular Malone regarded as ‘an unfounded calumny’. After Malone, respectable scholars would routinely disparage earlier anecdotal biography, and it was not long before the quickest route to scholarly kudos was to find a document relating to the life of Shakespeare.
Making a fetish of documents had its own risks, though. It encouraged forgers, such as John Payne Collier, who in the 1830s and 1840s found a number of documents which related to Shakespeare, and then forged many more in order to secure his reputation and prove his beliefs.A love of the documentary rather than the anecdotal also tended to drain the life out of Shakespeare’s life. In 1930 E.K. Chambers, drier than dust and more efficient at sucking it up than a Dyson, compiled his authoritative refusal to write a biography in William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, which is a brilliant work of scholarship, but scarcely a page-turner. Then in the 1970s the greatest of all of Shakespearean biographers, Samuel Schoenbaum, produced two books which split the activity of writing lives of Shakespeare into two distinct practices. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975) recorded almost all the known documents relating to the life, and gave us one of the best examples of biography as factual record. Schoenbaum also used all the speculations and fantasies he had painstakingly stripped away from his documentary life to write the vastly entertaining Shakespeare’s Lives (1970), which is effectively a biography of Shakespearean biography. The volume is a treasure-chest of nutcases, including poor Delia Bacon, who spent decades of her life, her sanity and a small fortune trying to prove that Shakespeare’s works were written by her namesake Francis. She even attempted a little nocturnal grave robbery in order to unearth the final proof from Shakespeare’s tomb.
Schoenbaum left Shakespeare’s biographers a real problem. We probably now have all the documentary evidence about his life that will ever be found, and much of it consists of deeds and writs, which are by their nature prone to make the playwright appear a model of possessive individualism. We have also been told to be sceptical about imaginative biography. In response to this dilemma, 21st-century biographers tend to present Shakespeare as not at all lovable, and have increasingly reintroduced what Chambers would drily have termed ‘speculation’ in order to offset the desiccating effect of the documentary record. Katherine Duncan-Jones describes a bit of a shark in Ungentle Shakespeare (2001), and is very good at extracting plausible matter even from Aubrey’s anecdotes. She also adds lively and often credible dashes of speculation of her own, such as the suggestion that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway stopped having sex some time in the 1580s. Park Honan’s biography of 1998 (still the best life of Shakespeare) includes several passages of subjunctive biography, in which he carefully reconstructs what might have happened to Shakespeare if, say, he had gone to Lancashire in the 1570s.
Stephen Greenblatt has no doubt that Will was a man on the make, and that the writs and wills and financial records accurately represent him as someone possessed by the desire to get on. He sees Shakespeare as driven to restore the status of his family after the decline of his father’s fortunes. Greenblatt also continues the fashion for bringing the ‘what if’ back to biographies of Shakespeare. He even begins his first chapter with ‘Let us imagine’, easing you into your armchair with the allure of fiction. He wants Will to be real, to be vivid, to be a person we could talk to and love for his ‘personal charm, his musical skills, his power of improvisation, his capacity to play a role’. This kind of biographical fiction might seem an extraordinary thing for a critic as intelligent as Greenblatt to have attempted. His earlier writing saw literature and power as locked in reciprocal cycles of self-construction and self-destruction, in which individuals mattered far less than ideological processes. But then he always gave Shakespeare a special place in these processes, and the circulations of power which he found running through early modern culture were often reminiscent of the ebb and flow of market forces. He was also keen to see distinctive personal identities emerging from the converging vectors of writing, power and markets. It is therefore not entirely surprising that the founding father of New Historicism should produce a book about the fascinating power of Will, which also sees Shakespeare as a player of markets.
This new book itself seems designed to fulfil a number of market demands. The superstar critic dances out his desire for the megastar author, courting him, imagining him, loving him. Who wouldn’t buy it? Who wouldn’t long for the video? The whole concoction seems at first sparkling and stimulating, and rather sweet. It gives readable and mostly persuasive reworkings of all the familiar phases of Shakespeare’s career. But it does not take long for the suspicion to dawn that Will in the World is the literary-biographical equivalent of Coca-Cola. The sweetness gets too much after more than a couple of swigs, and after a while it starts to produce a build-up of gas which eventually squirts right up your nose. Take Greenblatt on young Will’s formative experiences in Stratford: ‘Men and women and children, their faces flushed with pleasure, dancing around a Maypole, decked with ribbons and garlands. A coarse Robin Hood show, with a drunken Friar Tuck and a lascivious Maid Marion … Topsy-turvy days when women pursued men and schoolboys locked the teachers out of the classroom’. In case anyone thinks Shakespeare was brought up in a Bakhtinian version of Merrie Englandland, however, Greenblatt carefully sharpens up our historical sense by reminding us that ‘the age of questing knights and wandering minstrels was over.’ Porcupines stalked through the Forest of Arden in the American edition of this book; they have mercifully been put down for the British version. Greenblatt, though, is squarely in the tradition of Rowe: he presents the early Shakespeare as a loamy Warwickshireman, rather than as someone who might have met a porcupine in a book and liked the word. Like Rowe, too, Greenblatt thinks Shakespeare may have stolen deer, but for him this was ‘a skilful assault upon property, a symbolic violation of the social order, a coded challenge to authority’, since Greenblatt likes appositional clauses as much as he likes to think that Will was a bit of a boy radical.
Certainly there are bits of Shakespeare’s life about which we know so little that speculation is an absolute necessity unless a biographer is to leave a large blank. No one knows what Shakespeare got up to in the so-called ‘lost years’ between c.1585 and 1592 (opinion even differs as to how many years are actually lost). Aubrey suggests that ‘he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country,’ and uses this to explain how Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of Latin literature. Malone, a lawyer, suggests that Shakespeare may have been an attorney’s assistant during those years. More recently, some excitement has built up around a suggestion, developed most fully by E.A.J. Honigmann, that young Shakespeare was attached to the households of wealthy Catholic families in Lancashire. This goes back to the will of Alexander Hoghton, who in 1581 left his musical instruments and his ‘play clothes’ to Sir Thomas Hesketh along with a request that he treat ‘William Shakeshafte’ well. Honigmann argues that Shakeshafte was Shakespeare, and that he might have passed from the service of Hesketh into the household of Henry Stanley, Earl of Derby. There he might have met the core of the theatrical company which was to become the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. There is at present a large industry surrounding this line of inquiry, and it goes together with the belief that Shakespeare was a Catholic, which is often supported by the apparent discovery in 1757 of a will in the roof space of John Shakespeare’s house in Henley Street. This followed a Catholic formulary by Cardinal Borromeo, and was signed by Shakespeare’s father. Malone transcribed the will, but then it vanished. No one knows if it was forged or real, and Malone publicly expressed doubts about its authenticity in 1796. Shakespeare may or may not have been Catholic, but generally if a document that sounds too good to be true is found exactly where you’d hope to find it and then goes missing in mysterious circumstances it is indeed too good to be true.
Greenblatt takes all the speculation about Shakespeare as a Lancastrian Catholic and does the full Technicolor business with it. He wants us to imagine Will as a dewy-eyed young man, who meets and feels a deep affinity for the Catholic proselytiser and eventual martyr Edmund Campion, or ‘the brilliant, hunted missionary’ as Greenblatt calls him. There is strong evidence that late 16th-century Warwickshire was riven by tensions between old Catholic and new Protestant gentry (which included Sir Thomas Lucy, from whom Shakespeare is supposed to have stolen the deer), and Campion certainly visited households in Lancashire with which ‘Shakeshafte’ was linked in 1581. There is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare met Campion, though Greenblatt hints that this might itself be a kind of evidence that it happened: ‘Not surprisingly, Shakespeare never referred openly to Campion.’ This speculation is neither aesthetically nor historically plausible. There is not any man anywhere in any play by Shakespeare who even remotely resembles a person intent on dying for a faith (Isabella in Measure for Measure is probably Shakespeare’s only potential martyr, but even she has distinct bounds on what she is prepared in practice to suffer for). That absence may be eloquent, but it is certainly an absence. Shakespeare probably did have a schoolmaster with Lancashire connections; certainly, several members of his circle were Catholic; and certainly, his plays are not kind about zealous Protestants; but the whole edifice of the Lancastrian Catholic Shakespeare is nonetheless remarkably fragile. In a will there is found a name, which is not Shakespeare’s but is close enough possibly to be his. From this it is assumed that Shakespeare was a member of a Catholic household. From this in turn it is inferred that he was committed, and perhaps passionately committed, to Catholicism. From this it is a small step to suppose that he met and had a deep affinity with a Catholic martyr. It is likely that Catholic households tended to employ people who were at the least discreet about religion; would they, however, have employed only card-carrying, proselytising co-religionists? And in any case was Shakeshafte Shakespeare? Only, it seems to me, if you are possessed by the will to believe it.
Greenblatt needs Shakespeare to have been a Catholic to enable him to say what he wants to say about the psychogenesis of Hamlet, which is for him the absolute centre of Shakespeare’s life. And in a way this is a biography not so much of Shakespeare as of Hamlet: about three-quarters of it is spent on Shakespeare’s life up to 1600, while the later plays (including King Lear, Othello, The Tempest) are crammed into the last seventy or so pages. Hamlet, Greenblatt argues, broods on the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet in 1596 (‘the act of writing his own son’s name again and again may have reopened a deep wound, a wound that had never properly healed’), and anticipates the death of Shakespeare’s (Catholic) father. In the process, the play responds with regret to the Protestant denial of Purgatory, and to the passing of the formal methods of communicating with and relieving the plight of the dead which had flourished with late medieval Catholic piety. Hamlet is no doubt playing with various concurrent and incompatible conceptions of what happens to people after death. But Shakespeare doesn’t have to have been Catholic for this to be the case, since the play could well be casting back at its audience some of the doctrinal muddles not so much of its author as of its period. The will to make Will a Catholic who is haunted by an absent father makes Greenblatt need Shakeshafte to be Shakespeare.
Time (as well as facts) sometimes gets stretched in order to sustain Greenblatt’s less plausible suggestions. One of the most artful tricks of this biography is its tendency to discuss Shakespeare’s works in roughly chronological order, and intersplice them with events which occurred between five and twenty years earlier. Readers who don’t know the rough chronology of the plays might well come away with the impression that, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written during Shakespeare’s early years in Stratford rather than in about 1594, when he was in London, or that Henry IV was written in the very early 1590s rather than in 1596-97, probably the most formative years of Shakespeare’s career. This telescoping of time can sometimes work persuasively. Greenblatt makes elegant use of the traditional belief that A Midsummer Night’s Dream might reflect aspects of the performances put on before Elizabeth I at Kenilworth, 12 miles from Stratford, in 1575. Harry Goldingham, the actor who played Arion, apologetically tore off his costume and revealed his true identity in a way that’s very like Snug the joiner’s declaration ‘that I as Snug the joiner am/A lion fell.’ There are moments, though, when the structure of the book conspires to make hypotheses more plausible than they would seem if dates were delivered up front. So Greenblatt wishes us to believe that Falstaff is based on Robert Greene, who infamously described Shakespeare in 1592 as ‘an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers’. Greene died shortly after spewing out his Groatsworth of Wit, and Greenblatt has it that Will bided his time, but eventually had his revenge by turning Greene into ‘the abominable misleader of youth’ in Henry IV. Maybe Will let his hatred stew for four years. Maybe Greene was fat, though Henry Chettle described him as being ‘of body well proportioned … only his hair was somewhat long’. It is hard to believe that Falstaff could have been created as an act of simple or even complex revenge. Pistol could have been, Poins could have been, but hatred alone could not have made something as vast, warm and morally wobbly as Falstaff.
The larger issue here (and it’s an issue which arises from the whole genre of literary biography as it is often currently practised) is the heuristic poverty of biographical explanations of works of art. Writing might come from lots of places: reading, complex emotions, dying fathers, splendid daughters, chance encounters, grandparents, memory, fantasy, pressing need, friendships, enmities, financial pressures, local faction, drink, religious discord, demons, darkness, aliens, synaptic misfirings, a sound in the street, modes of land tenure, the muse. Falstaff certainly comes from more places than anyone could list: he’s a misleading surrogate father, an unruly nobleman, and was initially called Sir John Oldcastle, after the Lollard martyr who died in 1417. Falstaff’s prose owes a great deal to Thomas Nashe, and his early speeches in particular seem to include dashes of anti-Puritan satire. The character changes as he is written, and it appears that as a result of complaints from Oldcastle’s descendants his name had to be changed too. He is the sort of phenomenon literary biography in its present form can only flatten. Literary biography is often written for people who don’t much fancy reading plays and who want to be reassured that some of the superstitions they have about the relationship between human activities and social causality have some descriptive force. The explanations of literary activity which are required by the market for literary biography tend to be made up from a dash of Freud, a handful of social aspiration, a scratching from Foucault’s armpit, and a willingness to entertain simple-one-to-one correspondences between fiction and life.
What Greenblatt at one point in his career seemed well able to have provided is a cultural biography of Shakespeare, which would wean itself from the individuating anecdote, resist simple psychologising of the plays, break free of the constraints generated by the nature of the surviving evidence about Shakespeare’s financial transactions, and think instead about the chaos of interacting connections that might underlie Shakespeare’s work. Unfortunately, Will in the World is very much not that book.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.