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Let Us Sit Upon the Ground and Speculate About the Life of Shakespeare Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     January 21, 2013    
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  • Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography
  • by René Weis
  • Publisher: John Murray
  • Published in 2007
  • 4

In Shakespeare Revealed, René Weis offers a well-written, highly readable, consistent, and quite traditional biography of Shakespeare, based on the presumption that in his plays Shakespeare documented his inner life. As always with attempts to psychologise a person who left no indubitably autobiographical writings (letters, journals, etc), this creates an often highly speculative book, though one with few loose ends. It is a perfectly credible portrait of a human being, though the question of whether this is indeed what Shakespeare was like, and whether these are the events that had the strongest influence on him – in short, the question of whether he has indeed been revealed, as the title promises – must remain a question once the covers are closed. There are other biographies with divergent opinions that rest on exactly the same evidence, and whose conclusions are just as well-argued.

The strengths of Weis’s book are his rich and detailed knowledge of his subject’s context, Shakespeare’s Stratford and the importance of the Catholic underground to early modern England, his reliance on existing documentation to prove his points, and his willingness to give the original oral history concerning Shakespeare its due; its weaknesses are his overeagerness to relate everything in the works to Shakespeare’s personal life and his facility for seizing on possibilities and immediately treating them as certitudes.

In general Weis is very good at acknowledging that his various statements are simply that, possibilities suggested by the evidence, and it would of course be unfair to ask that every single one of these be prefaced by such a reminder: the deleterious effect on the prose alone can be imagined, and it would increase the book’s size by half. But there are moments where the caveat seems especially needed. Along the way Weis suggests that Romeo and Juliet was a memorial to Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, that his brother Edmund was the first actor to play Edmund the Bastard in Lear to Shakespeare’s own Edgar (after suggesting that the play came out of circumstances that would seem to make Gloucester the logical choice for Shakespeare’s role, if he was given to such autobiographical casting), and that the relationship between Shakespeare and his mother is dramatised in Coriolanus– a suggestion that comes out of nowhere and that is based purely on the fact that Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus around the time of his mother’s death. He also blandly announces that Shakespeare’s neighbour Alexander Aspinall ‘became Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost’ without presenting the faintest shred of evidence beyond the fact that Aspinall was the Stratford schoolmaster, and claims it likely that the playwright’s daughter Judith was his main muse for Twelfth Night. The mind occasionally boggles.

The problem with speculation is that it is cumulative: one supposition engenders another, until one is faced with a card castle swaying in the wind. Many of Weis’s speculations are not unwarranted, but their warrant turns out to be another speculation, that rests on a third (fourth, fifth, sixth…), each of the interlinking steps needing to be true for the final one to have any validity. It is that final guess that most needs the qualifying ‘possibly’ that Weis often fails to provide, for all that it is so far removed from demonstrable fact that it is in a very wobbly position indeed. Conversely, at times the assertions of certitude are such that they come across as protesting too much: finding ‘it can scarcely be doubted’ on page 372 and ‘it is all but inconceivable’ on 373 leads me to doubt the assertions much more than does the mere ‘surely’ that also appears on 373. At times, too, Weis’s preconceptions make him glaze over evidence that might belie his beliefs: he comments that in Shakespeare’s will ‘There is no reference to Shakespeare’s friend and boon companion Ben Jonson’, a fact that to other eyes might suggest that friends or not, the two were likely not boon companions. Likewise he pays little attention to theories other than those he himself espouses; for instance, while presenting Emilia Lanier to us as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, he barely mentions the fact that there are other contenders for this role (if she ever existed) and does not address any of the arguments that have been brought against her.

Of course, speculation is inevitable when attempting a life of Shakespeare, about whom there is much more evidence than is commonly believed but who still evades all attempts to conclusively get inside his head. Weis’s speculations are intelligent ones, though in the main his version of Shakespeare’s life is not especially novel, following the broad lines of A. L. Rowse’s. Thus we have Shakespeare having an affair of some sort with Southampton, with Christopher Marlowe as the Rival Poet of the Sonnets and Emilia Lanier as their Dark Lady. It is something of a shock, in fact, to find Rowse acknowledged in the bibliography only for his book on Simon Forman and an article on Shakespeare’s landlady.

Weis is at his best when looking at the Stratford of Shakespeare’s time; the depth of his research is clear and most of his conclusions soundly supported. Knowing exactly who lived where when, he is able to trace various family connections, scandals and business dealings, and builds up a very full and fascinating picture of the world Shakespeare came from and returned to, drawing out all of its implications for the work. It is a pity that Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, published the same year, was unavailable to Weis: Greer’s research fills out Weis’s, particularly regarding Anne Shakespeare’s role in Stratford during her husband’s absence. Weis rather blithely assumes that Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert was ‘Shakespeare’s trusted lieutenant for many years’, providing little evidence for this belief, and Anne Shakespeare is as absent from much of this biography as from all the others that provoked Greer into writing her book.

The other great strength of Shakespeare Revealed is the attention Weis pays to all the common anecdotes noted down in the 17th and 18th centuries about Shakespeare, and the trust he is willing to put in them when they come from before the great era of Shakespeare forgeries in the late 18th century. For instance, he gives due consideration to the anecdote of Shakespeare sneaking his way into a woman’s favours ahead of Richard Burbage, with its famous sally that ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’. Normally given short shrift as a mere shaggy dog story, it is examined in full by Weis, who not only is willing to credit it but teases out all the implications that both the anecdote and its survival have for Shakespeare’s contemporary fame. He also has some fascinating speculations on the possibility of Shakespeare having had a limp, as the sonnets may imply he did, which might explain why he apparently tended to play older roles. Yet at times he seems too eager to accept absolutely everything: hence he combines his belief in Shakespeare’s limp with the fact that one of Iago’s lines is an inside joke only a Stratfordian would understand to assume that Shakespeare wrote the role of Iago for himself, the sexual obsession of that character being a result of Shakespeare’s guilt over his affair with Jane Davenant, which is attested to by the latter’s son. This contention sums up Weis’s methods fairly well.

Despite its flaws, many of which are inescapable ones that affect all Shakespeare biographies ever written, Shakespeare Revealed is an engaging book whose speculations are often fascinating and well-worth taking into consideration. Reading it is far from a waste of time – but keeping a salt-filled snuffbox nearby to take pinches from every few pages would not go amiss.

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