Time was when we knew little about the life of Shakespeare. Like the good Victorian he was, Tennyson exulted: "The less you know about a man's life, the better. I thank God day and night that we know nothing about Shakespeare." Like the true skeptic he was, Mark Twain jeered that writing a biography of Shakespeare was like reconstructing a brontosaurus skeleton from "nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster of Paris."
This last comes from "History Play," an amusing fantasy life of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt, who ridicules a typical Shakespeare biographer: "All references in the plays to dolphins are lined up to suggest that, maybe, as a boy Shakespeare traveled 12 miles to see a water pageant staged by the Earl of Leicester in his castle grounds at Kenilworth." And so, Bolt continues, "a story is stitched together." Well, yes, a Shakespearean biography requires stitching, but some people are handier than others with the needle. The two books under review here are both sartorial successes.
"Shakespeare: The Biography," by Peter Ackroyd, is longitudinal; it tackles the entire life, with just enough about the ancestors and a brief look at the afterlife. "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare," by James Shapiro, is latitudinal, focusing on 1599, in some ways Shakespeare's annus mirabilis. It addresses in detail the four plays and background events of that year, but with a good many flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Both approaches have their merits. Ackroyd's are preponderantly those of a fellow writer and literary historian, with savvy observations from the heights of hindsight; Shapiro's are largely those we associate with a cultural critic and political journalist in full immersion. Needless to say, there is a good deal of overlapping, as there must be, but nobody who has read the one will fail to find pleasure and profit in the other.
By now research and criticism have shed so much light on Shakespeare that anyone interested enough to read these books knows the broad outlines of his life: childhood and schooling in Stratford in a household probably hiding condemned Roman Catholicism under a Protestant facade; marriage at 18 to the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway and the births of three children; the so-called lost years, during which Will may have worked for a butcher (unlikely) or tutored in the homes of Lancashire nobility (more likely). The coming to London as actor, playwright and poet, involved in the rivalries among various acting companies and competition with fellow playwrights. Perhaps also something about the mainly good relations with two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, and with certain prominent noblemen. Finally, the retirement to Stratford and life as a wealthy landowner, only sporadically punctuated by collaboration with other dramatists.
Ah, but the particulars! Elusive about everything, from the way the man looked (all portraits are dubious, and all different) to the spelling of his name (more than 80 ways), from his religion (Protestant? Catholic? none?) to his sexuality (hetero? homo? bi?), from the dating of his works to the exact instances and extent of his collaborations, from what roles he may have enacted to his relationships with family and friends. Also the precise nature of his general learning and specific reading. Annoyingly (though typical for the period), not a single letter or diary entry of his exists.
For some time now, what I'd call Shakelit has been a major industry. Books and articles about every conceivable and inconceivable aspect of Shakespeare are pouring out by the thousands. It seems unlikely that major factual discoveries remain to be made, but even as-yet-unsurmised surmises are becoming fewer and often sillier. Obviously, a new book about Shakespeare must take off from available historical and critical material, which by now, as the Ackroyd and Shapiro bibliographies attest (the latter alone runs to 40 pages), could easily fill a tidy volume.
But when even the experts cannot have read everything, what is a mere book reviewer to do? How is he to know exactly what in these books has been documented or speculated before, and how much is new insight? Just as the spectator or reader of the plays can ignore Shakespeare's borrowings, so one may best consider these books fully their authors' own. As for claims for alien authorship of the plays, neither Ackroyd nor Shapiro wastes much ink on them. Personally, I hail the anonymous student who stated, "Shakespeare's plays were written by William Shakespeare or another man of that name."
Ackroyd, though not a professional Shakespeare scholar, is a novelist, poet, critic and, above all, prolific biographer, with books on Chaucer, Thomas More, Blake, Dickens, Pound and T. S. Eliot, some of whom he aptly brings in here. Comparisons with Dickens, who was, in a way, the Shakespeare of the novel, are particularly suggestive; but Ackroyd, fruitfully, quotes many foreign opinions, old and new, as well. Especially effective is the brevity of his chapters, each dealing with a specific matter, and with a title slyly drawn from Shakespeare's words. That the endnotes are purely bibliographical, and everything else is right in the text, is also laudable.
Praiseworthy, too, is that Ackroyd, unlike Shapiro, does not modernize spelling, heterodox as this was in Shakespeare's day. "Any standardization or modernization of Shakespeare's language," Ackroyd writes, "robs it of half its strength; a shadow is not as dim and veiled as a 'shaddowwe,' a cuckoo does not sing like a 'kuckow,' and music is not as enchanting as 'musique.' In the old language we can still hear Shakespeare talking."
Ackroyd expertly evokes the townscape and landscape in and around Stratford, and the corresponding mindscape that vividly merges the urban and the rustic. Take the 108 plant varieties and 60 species of birds mentioned in the plays, evidencing a country background. And as England was changing from medieval to early modern, there "emerged a disparity between polite and popular traditions. . . . Shakespeare was perhaps the last English dramatist to reconcile the two cultures." Ackroyd is full of the firsts and lasts, the leasts and mosts that Shakespeare evinced.
If there is a governing idea in "Shakespeare: The Biography," it is to demystify the man and the artist; to show him as part of a continuum originating in the medieval miracle, morality and mystery plays. Also as a hardheaded, practical man of the theater and, later, of business; as a diligent worker who steadily polished and revised his writings, and who saw all sides of an issue with uncanny impartiality. Already in school, pupils were taught to exercise their memories and argue both sides of an issue. So does one learn to remember much and use it without prejudice.
How different from the old home was life in turbulent London, whose very stench "penetrated some 25 miles on all sides" with emanations of "dung and offal and human labor." But Will "thrived in a city where dramatic spectacle became the primary means of understanding reality." His famous "all the world's a stage" was in fact a Renaissance commonplace. Not without some justice, urban life was imagined as distinguished by sex and disease, and the new playhouses, much persecuted by the authorities, as harboring both. It was a world where kisses on the mouth were the common salutation between men and women, who bared their breasts in public, and where respected playhouse owners also owned brothels nearby. Shakespeare, often thought of as quiet, gentle, modest and retiring, is revealed by Ackroyd as shrewd, energetic and stubbornly persevering.
Most of the era's playwrights were Oxford or Cambridge graduates; Shakespeare was the first to emerge from the ranks of the actors. It may be that from the mercurial relationships within the various companies he was successively part of he derived "his greatest and earliest gift," the commingling of comedy and tragedy.
He was not a liberal. His respect is for the power of even weak rulers; the common people are invariably "the rabble." Significant events stem from human will, not divine providence. Rapidly though he was gaining theatrical prominence, his most reprinted work was the long erotic poem "Venus and Adonis." Although he is "the most salacious of all the Elizabethan dramatists," Ackroyd says, his is also "the most profound treatment of love in the English language."
Erotic literature, Ackroyd argues, reveals an author's personal tastes, and that poem about "overpowering lust for a young male" is "considerably more passionate even than Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice.' " Yet "this does not imply that he was in any sense homosexual but suggests, rather, an unfixed or floating sexual identity." This may tie in with what Ackroyd calls extraordinary theatrical impersonality. "It is not a matter of determining where Shakespeare's sympathies lie" - aristocracy versus populace - but "of recognizing that Shakespeare had no sympathies at all."
We may at times feel too much novelistic license, as when Ackroyd finds "no reason to believe" that Shakespeare "was deeply disturbed . . . by the death of Desdemona." But at other times his writerly approach gives him an advantage, as when he notes, of "Antony and Cleopatra," how "the billowing rhetoric of the Egyptians contrasted with the high Roman rhetoric of time and duty. It is the oration conceived as poem." Or again, of the extensive revision and rewriting of "King Lear," that Shakespeare "was always a work in progress."
This is not to deny that James Shapiro writes good, clean prose that can stand up to Ackroyd's. For example, he tells about the jigs, "semi-improvisational one-act plays" that incongruously followed the conclusions of plays because "Elizabethan audiences demanded it. . . . Jigs - anarchic and libidinal - were wildly popular because they tapped into parts of everyday experience usually left untouched in the world of the play. As such, they provided a counterpoint to the fragile closure of romantic comedy and to the high seriousness and finality of tragedy."
By picking 1599 as his subject, Shapiro gets to zero in on four plays that marked Shakespeare's path to complete mastery. "Henry V," the last and most interesting of the history plays, "succeeds and frustrates because it consistently refuses to adopt a single voice or point of view about military adventurism - past and present." The present was the Earl of Essex's hapless campaign against the Irish rebel Tyrone, which affected Shakespeare's thinking so much that in Act V, Scene 2, the queen of France greets Henry as "brother Ireland." Shapiro writes, "The mistake is not the nervous queen's but Shakespeare's, who slipped when intending to write 'brother England' (and whose error modern editors silently correct)."
The next play, "Julius Caesar," is a transition from history play to tragedy, and reflects the uneasy times when Elizabeth's reign was threatened by Irish rebels and Catholic plotters, not to mention rumors of another Spanish Armada. Shakespeare is so good at "juxtaposing competing political arguments, balancing them so neatly," that "four centuries later critics continue to debate whether he sides with or against Brutus and his fellow conspirators." The end of the republic and the coming of empire is one of those epochal moments that always challenged Shakespeare to imagine "what it means to live in the bewildering space between familiar past and murky future."
Another transformation occupied him in "As You Like It," from the Forest of Arden of his boyish dreams to what had become mostly enclosed pastures for sheepherders. That is the subtext as the comedy shuttles between four scenes in the dream forest and twelve in the pastures, showing two worlds in conflict in a background that "at times casts a shadow over an otherwise relatively sunny comedy. Its quiet recognition of the threat of social dislocation . . . seems to anticipate the next play Shakespeare set in England, 'King Lear.' "
A similarly troubling shadow is cast over England by the tragic history of Essex and Elizabeth, which Shapiro keeps aptly running parallel to Shakespeare's growth, climaxing in "Hamlet." Analyzing its two versions in brilliant detail -including the influence of sermons and a new genre, the essay - the book reaches its own climax even as it traces, with the downfall of Essex, the end of chivalry. What arises instead is the East India Company, started by a rising bourgeoisie, which eventually subsumed even the marginalized aristocrats. It is this new mercantile capitalist class that greatly contributed to the making of the British Empire and the modern age.
Shapiro does a fine job showing how this historic change gave birth to "Hamlet," with its inwardness and psychologizing, and to the row of great tragedies that followed. I disagree with his negative reading of Fortinbras and undervaluation of "Troilus and Cressida," but this entire final section of the book deserves close reading and careful reflection.
Here, then, are two books that in their diverse ways make similarly worthy contributions to Shakespeare studies while, regrettably, having also a lesser feature in common: a certain sloppiness of diction. I cite only select examples. Ackroyd, the distinguished British author, writes "comprised of," "central protagonists," "wracked" for tortured and "Beaumont's and Fletcher's" (not to mention references to Sartre's play "Les Mains Sales" as a novel and to the poet Heinrich Heine as "the German philosopher"). Shapiro, the noted Columbia English professor, writes "neither lives nor history come sliced," "Wart, whom even Falstaff admits is unfit," "any soldier . . . could be hung," "disinterested" for uninterested, "every male . . . were required" and "transpired" for happened.
Could their love of Shakespeare elicit a desire to return us to his colorfully chaotic grammar and usage?
by JOHN SIMON
Published: October 23, 2005
John Simon is the author of "John Simon on Theater," "John Simon on Film" and "John Simon on Music," which have just been published. He reviews theater for Bloomberg News.
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