THWS, CWWS, WSAF, and WSCI in the Shakespeare book biz.
Shakespeare, by Michael Wood (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 344 pp., $29.95.
Shakespeare: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd (New York: Doubleday, 2005), xvi + 548 pp., $32.50.
Shakespeare: The Seven Ages of Human Experience, 2nd ed., by David Bevington (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), xi + 258 pp., $19.95 paperback.
Shakespeare After All, by Marjorie Garber (New York: Pantheon, 2004), xii + 906 pp., $40.00.
Shakespeare for All Time, by Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), xxi + 424 pp., $40.00.
Shakespeare's Face: Unraveling the Legend and History of Shakespeare's Mysterious Portrait, by Stephanie Nolen with Jonathan Bate, Tarnya Cooper, Marjorie Garber, Andrew Gurr, Alexander Leggatt, Robert Tittler, and Stanley Wells (New York: Free Press, 2002), xvii + 334 pp., $27.00.
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2004), 390 pp., $26.95.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599, by James Shapiro (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), xix + 376 pp., $27.95.
SITTING JUST A FEW INCHES under ye olde blacke beames in Hussain's Restaurant in Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, I once had the melancholy thought that the historical William Shakespeare (THWS), for all the omnivorous appreciation of human experience registered in his plays, and despite having gone to school (probably) just down the street, had most likely never tasted a good lamb vindaloo. Since then, however, I have come to associate "Shakespeare," if not THWS, with the smell of espresso. The books listed above have a lot to do with that association. Most of them have found a spot on the Drama or Literature shelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble, some of them cover-side out, a few of them cover-side out on a display table at the end of the aisle. Most readers of this journal will, I suspect, agree with the following responses to this phenomenon:
* Seeing the subject of one's professional expertise for sale in Borders and Barnes & Noble is like seeing a place you know well in a commercially successful movie. You feel validated.
* As a result of all those Foucault-inspired sessions at MLA and SAA in the 1970s and '80s you have to wonder what the commercial viability of these books (price: $19.90 to $40.00) means politically. What kind of "social work" are these books doing?
* At the same time, you can't help wondering why that person over there with the Prada shoulder bag--yes, him--is pausing at the Shakespeare table on his way to the Self-Help section.
* You're envious that no one has offered you a six-figure advance to write a book like one of these.
With these nine books it's probably fair to say that critical reception in academic journals has stood in inverse proportion to each book's commercial success. All nine principal authors have written for a "general" readership. It would be altogether hypocritical of me to follow the example of other academic reviewers, since, with respect to subjects other than early modern England ca. 1550-1700, I myself am just such a "general reader." As the sixty-year-old version of the child who would take to bed a volume of The World Book Encyclopedia, 1956 edition, I still maintain a general reader's interest in anthropology, art history, history, linguistics, musicology, philosophy, and psychology--this despite Prof. J. W. Johnson's warning in graduate school that I was a dilettante and would never get anywhere in this profession if I didn't settle down. The best way to keep up with these diverse fields, I've found, is not to wander aimlessly in the journals section of the university library but to read the reviews in the TLS, to which I've subscribed since 1972, the first year I could afford it, and use those reviews to choose books for sampling and, on rarer occasions than I'd like to admit, for cover-to-cover perusing. I am to anthropology what an anthropologist is to Shakespeare, and I've read these nine books with that fact in mind. Who or what is "Shakespeare" in each case? What kind of story does the author tell? To what ends? My angle here is, I suppose, narratology, but with awareness of political consequences (what kind of negotiation is this author making, or refusing to make, with the dire events of 2002-5) and psychological factors (why do readers want to encounter just this story?).
About What and in What These Nine Books Are
Why these nine books? Why now? The few documented facts about THWS are, after all, already well established. Almost all of these authors refer and defer to Sam Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975). The "Shakespeare appropriation" business is likewise well covered already. In addition to Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives (1991), we have Michael Bristol's Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare (1990), the essays collected in Jean I. Marsden's Appropriating Shakespeare (1992), Michael Dobson's The Making of the National Poet (1992), Tom Cartelli's Repositioning Shakespeare (1999), Ania Loomba's Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002), not to mention a new electronic journal, Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. As Alan Sinfield puts it in Faultlines (1992), "Shakespeare is a powerful cultural token, such that what you want to say has more authority if it seems to come through him." (1) Even readers outside the academy can't help being aware of the huge disparity between, on the one hand, the 218 documents reproduced in Schoenbaum's A Documentary Life and, on the other, your local rep theater's production of Love's Labor's Lost set on Mars in the year 2407, just before the planet is smashed by a meteor. "Shakespeare" is positioned somewhere in between Schoenbaum's historical documents and last night's stage production. It is to that vast space--"Shake-scene" in Robert Greene's coinage, "Shakespace" in Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds's (2)--that these nine authors address themselves. What they find there and convey to their readers, their "general readers," gives a much better idea of the place of "Shakespeare" in public discourse than most academic books can manage. After all, the academic books are about "Shakespeare" in public discourse, not in it.
As apologists for the Earl of Oxford's authorship case are fond of pointing out, it is curious that early eyewitnesses to THWS's plays in performance do not mention the author by name. Thomas Platter, Simon Forman, Henry Jackson: in their brief jottings these witnesses to performances of Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and Othello during THWS's lifetime cut straight to the fictions they saw performed and the fictional persons who happened to strike them. Who wrote the scripts seems to have been unimportant to them. When THWS does figure in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents, he is only a name--a name that gradually emerges with more authority as time goes on. The name inscribed in ecclesiastical records in 1564 (birth), 1582 (marriage), 1583 (fatherhood), and 1585 (fatherhood) becomes: a factor in a lawsuit in 1589; the occasion for a punning sneer by Robert Greene in 1592; the signatory to dedicatory epistles (but not a title page author) with the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593 and Lucrece in 1594; a payee in court financial accounts in 1595; the object of a peace-bond and the petitioner for a coat of arms on his father's behalf in 1596; the recorded purchaser of a prime piece of Stratford real estate in 1597; at last a title-page author with the publication of quartos of Richard II, Richard III, and Love's Labor's Lost in 1598; and finally, in 1623 (seven years post-obit), "Mr. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" in all caps on the title page to the First Folio. (3) The rest, as they say, is history. Who the subject of that history might be remains in doubt. What is Shakespeare? A word. What is in that word "Shakespeare"? What is that "Shakespeare"? Air. A trim reckoning! (4)
In addition to the two syllables, we might locate "Shakespeare" in the engraved face that stares at the viewer with two left eyes in Martin Droeshout's portrait in the 1623 folio or perhaps in the stout trunk, two arms, two hands, one neck, one head, two lips indifferent red, one nose, and two eyes with lids to them that compose the monument on the north wall of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, or even in the bones that may or may not still lie under the stone inscribed "GOOD FREND FOR IESUS SAKE FOREBEAR TO DIG THE DUST ENCLOSED HERE." Beyond that, there is not much to go on. Greenblatt acknowledges as much. Near the beginning of his preface to Will in the World, Greenblatt announces that his aim is "to discover the actual person who wrote the most important body of imaginative literature of the last thousand years" (12, emphasis added); near the end, he confronts the impossibility of knowing for sure just which "Simon Hunt" in surviving written records was master of the Stratford grammar school when the "Gulielmus filius Iohannes Shakspere" of the parish register may or may not have been a pupil there and confesses, "in these details, as in so much else from Shakespeare's life, there is no absolute certainty" (19). One has to face the fact that THWS is a function of the system of words within which "Shakespeare" happens to figure at a given moment, in given circumstances. Different forms of discourse need a different "Shakespeare," and the nine books under review here deliver several.
Rather than examine each of the nine books individually--other reviewers, after all, have done that--I will ask eight questions and see what Peter Ackroyd, David Bevington, Marjorie Garber, Stephen Greenblatt, Frank Kermode, Stephanie Nolen, James Shapiro, Stanley Wells, and Michael Wood have to say for themselves, or rather, what they have to say for themselves to general readers about "Shakespeare." Here are the eight questions:
* Who is the protagonist?
* Who are the antagonists?
* What is the shape of the story? What constitutes that story's beginning, middle, and end?
* What marks the turning point?
* What shapes up as the denouement?
* How is the story told? How much visual evidence is included and how important is it? Is the reader told about external events or invited to imagine interior experience? Does "evidence" come from texts of the plays and poems themselves, or from con-texts, from documents, artifacts, visual images, architectural remains? Is the story's narrator absent or intrusive?
* How does the story engage with political issues? How does it negotiate power differences between genders, sexual-identity groups, social classes, ethnicities?
* Where does the story's interest reside? What accounts for the story's hold on the reader?
My overall goal is to use the answers to these questions as reference points for distinguishing and naming the different ideas about "Shakespeare" that these nine writers have put on the shelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble--and hence into public discourse.
Who Is the Protagonist?
"Ask Shakespeare a question about anything and he is likely to come back with an amazing answer, or, more importantly, a still more puzzling question," Bevington observes near the beginning of Shakespeare: The Seven Ages of Human Experience (2). There is a "he" in this sentence, but the "Shakespeare" in Bevington's title is clearly not just THWS but the placeholder for a body of work. Wells in Shakespeare for All Time points out that the word "Shakespeare" can mean various things, including (1) THWS, (2) a subject studied in school, and (3) "the constantly evolving mind and imagination from which all the works emanated" (169). The prefatory epistles and poems printed with Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies encourage the last view: "Shakespeare" is everything that THWS wrote. That is to say, William Shakespeare is to be understood as the Collected Works of William Shakespeare (CWWS). Shapiro observes how Hemmings and Condell helped to mystify the life of THWS by printing the plays, not according to chronology, but according to genre. In Bevington's formulation, it is CWWS, and not THWS, that remains present in 2007 to answer our questions. "Shakespeare" in Bevington's preface also occupies what Foucault has called "the author function." (5) If there is a text, we tell ourselves, there must be an author of that text, and "Shakespeare" is it--not him, but it. Thus Bevington goes on to praise "the ways in which Shakespeare sought to balance ironic and satiric observation with charity and compassion. It is in this balance that we find what is so deeply humane about him" (6). The "he" here is William Shakespeare as Author Function (WSAF). In effect, Wells in Shakespeare for All Time delivers not only THWS, CWWS, and WSAF but a fourth "Shakespeare" whose fortunes in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries provide the subject of most of Wells's book. These stories concern William Shakespeare as Cultural Icon (WSCI). Garber in Shakespeare After All remains skeptical of WSAF even as she embraces CWWS and acknowledges the inescapability of WSCI. Chapters on each of the plays individually are proceeded in Garber's book by an introduction in which "Biography and Authorship" figures as the shortest section. Positioning herself at Schoenbaum's end of the great divide, Garber offers only the barest facts about THWS. No speculation here about religion, "the lost years," the nature of Shakespeare's married life. THWS, Garber implies, remains elusive. He has disappeared into his characters, into CWWS. "Every age creates its own Shakespeare" (3), Garber declares. Most readers take that "Shakespeare" to be WSAF, but really "he" is a combination of THWS (less important), CWWS (more important), and WSCI (most important of all).
No more striking example of Garber's proposition could be found than the early seventeenth-century portrait of a young man that forms the subject of Nolen's Shakespeare's Face. A foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Nolen wrote a story for the paper in 2001 about a portrait that had been passed down in the family of one of her parents' friends. Oral tradition in the Sanders family that the portrait represented William Shakespeare seemed to be corroborated by an inscription on the painting's surface dating the picture to 1603 and a linen label on the back that read--or once read--"Shakspere/Born April 23 = 1564/Died April 23-0 1616/Aged 52/This Likeness taken 1603/Age at that time 39 ys." Although the costuming of the image, carbon-dating of the wood panel, and x-ray analysis of the layers of paint all point to the painting's origins in the early seventeenth century and confirm its largely original condition, what the Sanders portrait really has going for it is the pensive, personable face--so much more inviting to twenty-first-century eyes than the too-flat Droeshout engraving or the too-fat Stratford church monument. Nolen's book comprises not only her own account of the Sanders portrait's trajectory from hanging on a dining-room wall to storage under a bed to safekeeping in a bank vault to special exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario to notoriety to inconclusiveness to (one suspects) hanging on a dining-room wall--but interspersed chapters by art professionals and Shakespeare scholars, including Marjorie Garber. Taking a cue from Foucault's AF, Garber writes about "the portrait-function," which she defines as "a reflection-effect, holding, in the case of this author above all others, the mirror up to Shakespeare, showing the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (177)--the time being ours, not his. Garber cites with glee the response of the culture correspondent of the Los Angeles Times to the Sanders portrait: the face in the picture, the reporter observed, strongly resembles Joseph Fiennes, the actor who impersonated the author-function in Shakespeare in Love. We come close here to Mars in 2407.
The protagonist in Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare fails somewhere in between THWS and WSAF. Kermode's short study (just over 200 pages) is part of a series called "Chronicles Books" that includes titles on literary genres (James Wood on the novel), ideas (Edward J. Larson on the theory of evolution), and institutions (Catharine R. Stimpson on the university) as well as times and places. "Shakespeare" functions for Kermode as a stand-in for an age, in just the way Napoleon does in another book in the series by Alistair Horne. The protagonist of Kermode's narrative is both a product of social and political history and an agent in his own right: "just as his was only the grandest of companies, Shakespeare was only the grandest of the poets writing for the many and various audiences who were in effect his patrons. He was, under one aspect, a very successful businessman, a type that was common at the time in other professions, but he was also a poet who had certain aristocratic contacts and, as a liveried servant of the Crown, a minor courtier, one who eventually had his own coat of arms--a man acquainted with much that went on in social ranks both above and below him" (7). As a stand-in for an age, his age, "Shakespeare" functions for Kermode as a kind of synecdoche.
All the other writers under review here--Wood in Shakespeare, Ackroyd in Shakespeare: The Biography, Greenblatt in Will in the World, Shapiro in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599--purport to offer up THWS. Who in each case is that person? For all four of these writers, "Shakespeare" is a boy from the provinces who made good in London. Wood and Ackroyd stress his rural origins in Warwickshire. "Unlike the works of most of his urban or university-educated contemporaries," Wood begins, "Shakespeare's plays are full of images of flowers, trees and animals. His linguistic roots are here too--not in the more socially acceptable speech of London or the court. Shakespeare spoke with a Warwickshire accent" (17). After a brief introductory chapter on Shakespeare's birth date, Ackroyd, author of Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002), is even more emphatic about the place of Shakespeare's birth and upbringing: "Warwickshire was often described as primeval, and contours of ancient times can indeed be glimpsed in the lie of this territory and its now denuded hills. It has also been depicted as the heart or the navel of England, with the clear implication that Shakespeare himself embodies some central national worth. He is central to the centre, the core or source of Englishness itself" (6). Wells likewise emphasizes THWS's provincial origins, although he devotes more attention to Shakespeare's local education than he does to Shakespeare's experiences in the Warwickshire countryside. Greenblatt's Shakespeare is also "a young man from a small provincial town--a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections, and without a university education" who nonetheless becomes the world's most celebrated author (11). What distinguishes Greenblatt's Shakespeare from his peers, as we discover in chapter 1, paragraph 1, is his fascination with language, an obsession with "the magic of words" (23). Shapiro, because his interest is directed toward the single year 1599, is less concerned with Shakespeare's origins than with Shakespeare's professional achievements and habits of writing. "The Shakespeare who emerges in these pages," Shapiro warns in the preface, "is less a Shakespeare in Love than a Shakespeare at Work" (xviii). Shapiro's protagonist combines shrewd business acumen with imaginative genius. As You Like It, one of the plays produced during the 1599-1600 season, gives Shapiro the occasion for a freestanding chapter on "The Forest of Arden," but the subject this time is not THWS's wanderings among green fields and forests but his investments and business dealings.
The most "rounded" of the protagonists in these nine books (to use E. M. Forster's phrase from Aspects of the Novel) is Wood's. The Shakespeare who gives Wood his one-word title is a Catholic, a dutiful family man, and a bisexual who stops short of physically consummating his passion for the young man of the sonnets. The Catholic element looms large. John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, Wood is convinced, were devout Catholics who compromised outwardly to avoid persecution. He imagines the young Shakespeare overhearing adult conversations about the government's increasing severity: "When seen in the eyes and heard in the whispers of one's parents, such struggles of power and conscience are things a child never forgets" (46). Shame in the sonnets is interpreted as the result of Shakespeare's Catholic upbringing. If the plays do not trace "a religious trajectory" (270), it is because THWS kept his own counsel on matters of religion: "He listened to Protestant sermons, but he also knew about the 'touch of the holy bread' and the 'evening mass'" (271). Despite his absence from Stratford for months at a time, THWS remained a devoted husband and father. "It might seem as if he had in some sense abandoned his family, if not financially, then emotionally," Wood concedes. "But people have to adapt to their circumstances. London was where his employment lay--and therefore his income, which supported them. No doubt he wrote home, and both sides would have had to accommodate themselves to the situation as best they could" (165). Later, when he buys New Place: "Shakespeare clearly felt the need for some practical and emotional input in Stratford" (213). On THWS's sexuality Wood is less certain and more anxious. First he says that the passionate love for the young man expressed in certain sonnets "was possibly non-sexual" (177, emphasis added), then a few pages later the poet's feelings have become "apparently not physically consummated" (187). The slights of literary hand whereby these subjectivity effects--and displays of conventional middle-class morality--are created will occupy us shortly, but suffice it to say for now that Wood delivers up THWS in the guise of WSCI for postal code NW3 and zip code 20016, a man who exactly matches the sensibilities of the people who viewed the televisual version of this project over BBC2 in 2003 and later over PBS in the United States.
Who Are the Antagonists?
That a good story needs an antagonist is something that WSAF apparently knew well. Petruccio needs Kate, Richard III needs Henry Richmond, Achilles needs Hector, Othello needs Iago, Hamlet needs Laertes. And THWS, despite his successes, needs detractors and blocking figures. The historical record provides several candidates: Robert Greene, who in the first surviving reference to THWS as a theater professional derides him as "the only Shakescene in a country," and Ben Jonson, who manages to slide a sneer about THWS's "small Latin and less Greek" into his commendatory verses for the First Folio. Greene and Jonson make their adversarial appearances in the nine books under review here: Greene in Ackroyd's, Greenblatt's and Kermode's (along with Kyd and Marlowe) and Jonson in Wood's. Shapiro, given his focus on "Shakespeare at Work," positions THWS more generally vis-a-vis the playwrights competing for artistic and commercial success in London's busy theater scene. Alone among his peers, Shapiro's Shakespeare realizes that London audiences, able to see so many plays week in and week out, were capable of ever more sophisticated and discriminating responses: "He committed himself to writing great plays for the Globe but also to nurturing an audience comfortable with their increased complexity" (19).
For Garber, Wells, Bevington, and Nolen the antagonists hail, not from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the twentieth and twenty-first. Skeptical as she is of THWS, and committed to giving each play its fifteen- to twenty-page due, Garber casts as adversaries those critics who assume that masterpieces must be the products of one mind only. She loves to champion plays like 1 Henry VI, often despised as being a collaborative play that lacks the workmanship of later plays more securely attributable to THWS alone. "The 'Shakespeare' that we have come to admire, revere, quote, and cite," she argues, "is often in part a composite author, since his works, even the most greatly honored ones, have been improved and altered over time by the conjectures of editors trying to make sense of what may appear to be gaps or errors in the printed text." As for 1H6, it is "a lively, smart, sophisticated, and well-designed play, full of strong characters and fast-paced action. It plays exceedingly well onstage, and it does not deserve the literary condescension that has sometimes come its way" (90). Wells, whose book starts with "Shakespeare and Stratford" and ends with "Shakespeare Worldwide," finds his antagonists in the anti-Stratfordians, who make a three-paragraph appearance in the final chapter. Who knows what motivates them, Wells wonders. Snobbery? "Those who take this line tend to understate the value of a Stratford education, and to overvalue the talents of the aristocracy" (388). The desire for ten minutes of fame? The media love "new" news about WSCI. "Or is it mere eccentricity, bordering even on mental instability ..., a perverse desire to challenge orthodoxy in the face of reason?" (388). Bevington's celebration of the complexity and resilience of CWWS is designed to preempt the partialities of "feminists, deconstructionists, Marxists, traditional close readers, Christian interpreters, students of cultural studies, you name it. Despite his chronological antiquity, he speaks today to the condition of each of these methodologies" (2). In the book's final chapter Bevington casts the entire academic enterprise as an agon. After a distinguished career of nearly fifty years, he ought to know. "Ideological rivalries," Bevington observes, "encourage young teachers to find out who the Enemy is, and to move ahead in the academic world by overthrowing older and presumably outmoded ways of thinking about Shakespeare (or any other subject). These are the hazards.... The hope lies in Shakespeare's malleability. He is eternally relevant because he responds acutely to virtually any question that is put to him, and does so often by disconcerting us with questions of his own" (238). Nolen's story of the Sanders family's attempt to authenticate their portrait of THWS at age thirty-nine finds its antagonists among the museum curators, auction-house experts, and Shakespeare scholars, all of whom doubt, albeit politely, the family legend about the portrait's origins.
What Is the Shape of the Story?
1564 April 26 Guilelmus filius Iohannes Shakespere [15 March 1595] to William Kempe Willam Shakespeare & Richarde Burbage servaunts to the Lord Chamberleyne ... [xiij.sup.l] [vj.sup.s] [viij.sup.d] 1616 April 25 Will Shakspere gent. (6)
In rough outline the beginning, middle, and end of the story of THWS are dictated by the surviving life-records. WSCI begins with comedies, middles with histories (OED "middle" v. 6.c [perpendicular to]), and ends with tragedies. The story of WSAF is curiously symmetrical. It stretches, in the Oxford second edition, from Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589-91) to The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613), those two plays about pairs of male friends set at odds by a woman. The Life of Henry the Fifth (1598-99) and The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) come halfway through. For the most part it is the life-records associated with THWS that govern the shape of Greenblatt's and Wood's narratives. Each of them first situates THWS solidly in Stratford-upon-Avon, then takes him to London, and finally returns him to Stratford in unapologetically sentimental circumstances. "He made a decision early in his life," Greenblatt avers in the closing pages of Will in the World, "or perhaps a decision was made for him: he had something amazing in him, but it would not be the gift of the Demiurge; rather, it would be something that would never altogether lose its local roots" (389). Wood's protagonist is a loving husband and father; Greenblatt's, only a loving father: "What Shakespeare wanted was only what he could have in the most ordinary and natural way: the pleasure of living near his daughter and her husband and their child" (390).
The three-part structure of Greenblatt's and Wood's stories become seven in Bevington's attempt to use Jaques' set piece on "the seven ages of man" as a way of bringing together the known facts about THWS, the evidence of life experience in CWWS, and the continuing fascination of WSCI. The life-narrative is confined to just a few pages in the first chapter, followed by a consideration of the Oxford authorship case, but passing references to THWS's life circumstances are made throughout Bevington's book. Thus THWS wrote his comedies about love when he was twenty-six to thirty-six. In the 1590s he wrote about "The Coming-of-Age of the Male" in the history plays (80-101), turning about 1600 to "Love and Friendship in Crisis" in the problem plays and Hamlet (102-28), confronting "Political and Social Disillusionment, Humankind's Relationship to the Divine, and Philosophical Scepticism" in his midcareer tragedies (129-59) and "Misogyny, Jealousy, Pessimism, and Midlife Crisis" in the tragedies he wrote later (160-89), before turning to "Ageing Fathers and their Daughters" in the romances (190-211). "We do not know what Shakespeare's relationships with his immediate family were really like," Bevington is careful to say. "We can spectulate, however, that the story of Pericles' separation from and eventual reunion with wife and daughter was just the kind of tragicomic dream to give Shakespeare the chance to express, in a play, the sorts of feelings that a man might have in rejoining his wife and daughter after so long a separation" (193).
Genealogies of John Shakespeare's family and Mary Arden's figure in most of these books, but Ackroyd, Kermode, and Wells expand the time frame in significant ways, while Shapiro collapses it into a single year. Ackroyd and Kermode both reach into the past, Ackroyd to the primeval "Albion" into which THWS was born, Kermode to the political problems of the Tudor dynasty's claim to the throne and the controversies over religion. Wells's sights are turned in the opposite direction, toward what has happened to WSCI in the four centuries since THWS's death in 1616. The last of Wells's three biographical chapters is focused on "Shakespeare the Writer," a segue into the history of productions, adaptations, and cultural appropriations that occupy two thirds of Wells's book. Shapiro's story in A Year in the Life of Shakespeare, 1599, is in a way all middle, although he of course gestures toward the past and the future in the careers of THWS and WSAF. The year itself is organized into four seasons--winter, spring, summer, autumn--which makes sense in terms of the performing calendar (in addition to appearing at the royal court and the Inns of Court during Christmas festivities, playing companies like the Lord Chamberlain's Men seem to have enjoyed their best box offices in the stretch between Christmas and Lent) if not in the reckoning of the new year's beginning at the vernal equinox in March. The sequence of seasons from winter to autumn gives Shapiro's epilogue a certain elegiac quality, as the annus mirabilis of 1599 was succeeded by the political disillusionment of the Essex Rebellion and a relatively fallow period for Shakespeare as a scriptwriter.
In contrast to these various schemes for aligning THWS, WSAF, and WSCI, Garber by and large refuses narrative and the discriminations and distortions that beginnings, middles, and ends entail. Her forty-one-page introduction, about twice the length of her longer chapters on plays like Hamlet, comprises sections on "The Stage and the Page," "Biography and Authorship," "the Theater in Renaissance England," "Shakespeare and Culture," and (best of all) "Planet Shakespeare." If there is a story here about CWWS, it is not linear. Near the beginning of the introduction, Garber insists that in her pages "Shakespeare" is nowhere to be found. After a survey of postcolonial readings of The Tempest, Garber poses the question that her reader must be thinking: "But where did 'Shakespeare' stand on these questions? As I will suggest through the chapters that follow, the brilliant formal capacities of drama are such that the playwright's voice is many voices. Shakespeare is Prospero, Caliban, Ariel, and the wondering Miranda" (6). The introduction concludes with a gesture toward those would-be authority figures who step forward at the end of WSAF's scripts--Fortinbras in Hamlet, Albany (or is it Edgar?) in King Lear, Leontes in The Winter's Tale--would-be authority figures whose stories are patently not the stories that other characters onstage (not to mention the audience in the house) would tell about the events that have just transpired.
What Marks the Turning Point?
Getting to London, of course. After that, writing Hamlet. Ackroyd's account is the most grandiloquent. Leaving a not totally happy marriage might have been part of THWS's reasons for leaving Stratford. The opportunity to join a troupe of traveling players might have been another. But Ackroyd finds the ultimate reason in the stars: "In the lives of great men and women, however, there is a pattern of destiny. Time and place seem in some strange way to shape themselves around them as they move forward. There would be no Shakespeare without London. Some oblique or inward recognition of that fact spurred his determination" (108). This from the author of London: The Biography (2001). Greenblatt and Wood rehearse more circumstantial explanations for how THWS found himself on the road to London, but the journey thither occupies the same pivotal position in both stories. Greenblatt imagines THWS joining a group of actors who tour the southern counties before they get to London--a possibility that is appealing in part because it lets us imagine Shakespeare's first view of London as just what we see in those often-reproduced bird's-eye views from the south. Ackroyd's THWS approaches from the north, of course--from "the heart or the navel of England"--via Aldersgate or Bishopsgate. Among the writers under review here, only Kermode and Wells resist the London passage. Kermode imagines THWS leading "a double life," in two locales, London and the country--an arrangement that was not possible for professional writers who hailed from farther away. Wells calls attention to the regular communications that Stratford had with London (there was apparently twice-a-month goods carriage between the two places, and letters indicate frequent visits to London by Stratford town officials and merchants) as well as THWS's continuing investments and real estate transactions back in Stratford. In sum, "Shakespeare was, I suspect, our first great literary commuter" (37).
As for WSAF, CWWS, and WSCI, the turning point is just where we would expect it to be from the chronological printing of the plays and poems in the Oxford second edition: in 1599. Wood, who casts Jonson as THWS's main antagonist, momentarily entertains the possibility that Julius Caesar might be WSAF's breakthrough text, a response to Jonson's classicizing critique, but most of the writers here (excepting the antinarrativizing Garber, of course) locate the pivot of THWS's career just where it has been located since the early nineteenth century, in Hamlet. Kermode finds in the play a decisive shift from old to new styles of language as well as from old to new styles of acting. Wood calls attention to 1599 as the midpoint in THWS's career and sees Hamlet as the culmination of a burst of creative energy that includes Richard II, I and 2 Henry IV, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. "It is no surprise," Wood says, "that from this time Shakespeare spread his wings and his art widened and deepened" (160). The chapter subheading on Hamlet is entitled, without embarrassment, "The Invention of the Human" (238ff.)--a formulation that Greenblatt confirms. With this play, Greenblatt claims, WSAF "made a discovery by means of which he relaunched his entire career" (323). That discovery turns out to be not just the extended soliloquy as a dramatic device but "radical excision" (323) that implies a consciousness behind the words. What is more, if Wood can be believed, Hamlet shows THWS, a Catholic, coming to terms with his country's religious history at an epochal moment: "The pre-Reformation past is beginning to recede, and now Shakespeare can dramatize it, exorcizing the ghosts" (240).
It is Shapiro who gives this epochal moment its fullest treatment. The year 1599 witnessed the crushing of the Irish rebellion, the launching of the East India Company, the weathering of another Armada threat, and the transfer of the Lord Chamberlain's Men from their hired quarters at the Curtain to the new Globe Theater they had erected on the Bankside, as well as the year in which WSAF wrote or saw produced Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. "I've chosen to write about 1599," Shapiro says in the preface, "not only because it was an unusually fraught and exciting year but also because, as critics have long recognized, it was a decisive one, perhaps the decisive one, in Shakespeare's development as a writer" (xvi). The turning point within the turning point comes in the first chapter of the "Autumn" section: "In Hamlet, Shakespeare once again found himself drawn to the epochal, to moments of profound shifts, of endings that were also beginnings.... In Hamlet he perfectly captures such a moment, conveying what it means to live in the bewildering space between familiar past and murky future" (279). In particular, Shapiro contrasts the collapse of the age of chivalry and the beginnings of the age of mercantilism, empire, and globalization. That turning point was played out in 1599 between, on the one hand, Essex's attempt to act the chivalric hero in Ireland and, on the other, the founding of the East India Company. It is telling, Shapiro observes, that Hamlet is a remake of a play that was holding the stage when Shakespeare first arrived in London. It is "a play poised midway between a religious past and a secular future" (301).
What Shapes Up as the Denouement?
As far as THWS is concerned, the story ends as all human stories do, with death. What immediately precedes that event varies: the pleasure of living near his daughter Susannah and her husband and their child (Greenblatt), using his will to settle the score with his troublesome daughter Judith (Ackroyd), a final bout with alcoholism (Wood). On the subject of THWS's retirement to Stratford, Wood's range of reference is the broadest: "Had he perhaps lost the fierce creative energy that had driven him to such spectacular results in the late 1590s and early 1600s? ... Was he burnt out? Was this a long-planned retirement? Had Anne finally put her foot down? Or did he simply not want to work so hard? Realistically, this is as good a guess as any" (300). For WSAF the denouement is less certain. Which among the several possible consummations is most devoutly to be wished? The Tempest, in Bevington's view, remains WSAF's "last play," even though he later collaborated on others. It was written as "a way of demonstrating the things he could do best" (219). For Garber, The Two Noble Kinsmen, as WSAF's last last play, represents "the melting of two (kinsmen, authors) into one" and thus the elimination of "friction and rivalry, but at the price of death" (906). More uncertain still is the denouement of WSCI's story. A short-range conclusion is provided by Kermode, who ends his book with the heightening of economic and social conflict in the years after THWS's death and the eruption of civil war in 1642. More optimistic, indeed triumphalist, endings are provided by Bevington and Wells, who celebrate the staying power of WSCI across the four centuries since THWS's death. Bevington's WSCI is, as we have seen, ready for any and all questions that might be thrown at him. Wells's is more subject to mutability. The international presence of WSCI may continue to increase, but in ways about which Wells registers ambivalence. Productions of all sorts continue to flourish on the world's stages, but WSCI seems not to have inspired many musical adaptations since Benjamin Britten. Is the growth of "the heritage industry" with its assorted Tshirts and tchotchkes to be celebrated or scorned? What about the "frenetic" workings (399) of the academic "Shakespeare industry" (including this review)?
How Is the Story Told?
There are four axes to be considered here:
* the ratio of visual images to written text
* the degree to which evidence is culled from WSAF's plays and poems, as opposed to other documents
* the balance between reportage of external events and appeals to interior experience
* the reticence or intrusiveness of the narrator.
One hundred twenty full-color illustrations in Wood, 31 in Wells, 23 in Nolen, 14 in Greenblatt, 14 in Shapiro, 11 in Ackroyd: perhaps the most striking difference between these cover-side-out books and the academic books lower on the shelf (or available only on special order) is production values. Wood's is by far the most visual in the way it conveys information, as one might expect from a book that was produced to accompany the television series In Search of Shakespeare, broadcast over BBC2 in 2003 and later over PBS in the United States. In fact, the dust jacket on the Basic Books edition carries an emblem saying "SEE IT ON PBS." See it, not read it. To the credit of Wood and his designers, the book is full of illustrations presenting places, faces, and objects beyond the usual suspects like Anne Hathaway's cottage, and to see already familiar images--the records of THWS's christening and burial, title pages to various quartos and the 1623 folio, the Earl of Southampton with his black cat, William Camden's limning of Queen Elizabeth's funeral procession--in full texture-rich color is to discover a startling, emotional, tactile immediacy. Most of these expensively reproduced images remain, however, mere illustrations--glanced at in the text but not subjected to detailed scrutiny. Notable exceptions are the illustrations Wood provides of black people in Shakespeare's London. Wells's images (in addition to the 31 in color there are 147 in black-and-white) likewise include unexpected items--a sixteenth-century hornbook with its handle, a page from William Lily's A Short Introduction of Grammar showing phrases repeated in the schoolroom scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the reconstructed Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia, assorted production stills from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--and in general those images are coordinated with the written text more closely than they are in Wood. Nolen's account of the Sanders portrait includes a useful gallery of other portraits that have been taken to represent Shakespeare, as well as interesting reproductions of cross-section analysis of the painting's wooden support and layers of pigment. In general, however, images in all the other illustrated books provide little more than period atmosphere. They do not figure in any sustained way in the books' arguments. Other than the covers (all three in full color), Kermode, Garber, and Bevington are not illustrated at all.
One curious feature of Wood's Shakespeare deserves comment. Many of Wood's illustrations of places are Victorian photographs. Holy Trinity Church in 1870, London's Green Dragon inn in the 1880s, a lane near St. Helen's Bishopsgate in 1886, the Southwark docks in 1881, sixteenth-century houses in Bermondsey Street Southwark in 1893, the street called Cloth Fair in Smithfield in the late nineteenth century: with the exception of Holy Trinity Church, none of these structures and street scenes is to be seen today (though Cloth Fair comes close), but Wood's choice washes the whole enterprise in a sepia-toned, fuzzy-focus nostalgia all too familiar from "the heritage industry." As Trevor Nunn observes in the introduction to the film script of Twelfth Night (1996), a Victorian setting is comfortable for most contemporary viewers: distant enough to seem "not now" but recent enough to appear imaginable and inhabitable. (7) That is especially the case in Britain, where nineteenth-century buildings still dominate many cityscapes. To judge from Merchant-Ivory films of classic novels and any number of BBC and PBS dramatizations, not to mention Kenneth Branagh's films of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996), the nineteenth century has become "the default past" for the sorts of people likely to buy any of these nine books. And so it is in Wood's Shakespeare: the reader is invited to see early modern England through a sentimental Victorian filter that lets in bisexuality but keeps out the possibility that personhood in 1599 might have been a very different thing from personhood in 2003.
To what extent do these nine authors turn to contextual documents for their evidence about THWS and to what extent do they depend on internal evidence from the plays and poems themselves? Kermode, with his insistent focus on political and social history, is probably the most contextual of the nine authors; Bevington, the freest in extrapolating biography from WSAF's fictions. Kermode's is primarily a historical narrative, in which the question of Tudor succession, religious controversies, fluidity of class structures, the Essex Rebellion, James's accession, and so on. become the main events that "explain" THWS's life. At the opposite extreme is Bevington's conviction that the THWS's life-experiences are registered in WSAF's scripts, a situation that unlocks "the mystery of why he engages our imaginations so deeply. He writes of desire, jealousy, ambition, ingratitude, misanthropy, and charitable forgiveness because he has known what it is like to be there" (284). The other writers (except for Garber, who does not concern herself with biography after the introduction, and Nolen, who hardly concerns herself with the scripts at all) can be ranged between these two poles:
Kermode | Wells | Shapiro Ackroyd | Wood | Greenblatt | Bevington
Wells's account of THWS's life in Stratford is based on not only the manuscripts and printed records that all these writers cite but, to a much greater degree than anyone else, on the archaeological evidence of the surviving buildings associated with THWS. The built environment likewise figures in Shapiro's imaginative synthesis of a huge amount of printed evidence in reconstructing not only the events but the feel of THWS's life in 1599. "Winter," for example, opens with Shakespeare and company arriving at Whitehall Palace on Tuesday, December 26, 1598, for an evening performance. Shapiro uses Paul Hentzner, Thomas Platter, and other travelers' descriptions of the palace to set the scene in amazingly precise detail--and then introduces THWS amid those details and endows him with a consciousness. "A short detour up the staircase into the privy gallery overlooking the tiltyard led Shakespeare into a breathtaking gallery," Shapiro relates. "Its ceiling was covered in gold, and its walls were lined with extraordinary paintings" (25). Despite Shapiro's protestations in the preface that we can never know what THWS felt, he nonetheless is a master at making us feel that we do. It's plausible, of course, that THWS might have gone up the staircase to the privy gallery. But who would have given him permission? Who would have unlocked the doors? Hentzner, Platter, and the other foreign visitors who have left accounts of the space had access because of connections and letters of introduction. Hentzner was tutor to a young Silesian nobleman, Platter was a medical student with important London contacts. THWS and company figured, in the eyes of some members of the court at least, as the hired help, brought in for the evening's entertainment. In general, though, Shapiro is too smart for such slips. More typical of his magisterial arrangement of the evidence is his locating both THWS and Edmund Spenser at Westminster in December 1598. The possibility that Spenser might have seen the Lord Chamberlain's Men perform 2 Henry IV at Whitehall Palace on December 26 gives Shapiro his prompt for considering impressment as a concern in both 2H4 and the English military occupation of Ireland. Spenser's death and funeral in Westminster a few weeks later provokes reflections on differences between Spenser and THWS with respect to circumstances, careers, and writings.
Like Wells, Ackroyd is interested in the evidence of timbers and plaster, in the arrangement of rooms in John Shakespeare's Henley Street house, the activities that took place in each one, the furnishings, the sounds, even the smells of leather-curing out back. "No other Elizabethan dramatist employs so many domestic allusions," Ackroyd observes. "Shakespeare maintained a unique connection with his past" (33). In his determination to set down THWS amid the quotidian realities of Elizabethan life, Ackroyd is willing to take more risks than Wells and Shapiro. He begins with the documentary facts--the record of THWS's christening, known facts about John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, the visits of the Queen's Men and the Earl of Worcester's Men to Stratford in 1569, and so on--and proceeds to fill in circumstantial detail from social and political history--producing, in effect, historical "thick description." Usually the risks work. Ackroyd reports, for example, that an inventory of Mary Arden's father's possessions includes several painted cloths: "Mary Arden was bequeathed at least one of these painted tapestries in her father's will, and it is most likely to have ended up on a wall in Henley Street" (31). He proceeds to make suggestive connections with painted cloths in WSAF's scripts: Macbeth's reference to the "Eye of Child-hood that feares a painted Deuill" and Falstaff's reference to "Lazarus in the painted cloth"--which put me in mind of Lucrece's use of the Fall of Troy, painted on a wall or on a cloth, to make sense of her misfortune. Painted cloths, Ackroyd establishes, were something THWS likely knew firsthand as a child, perhaps even had studied with the intensity of a Lucrece. Likely. Perhaps.
Wood's way with evidence is more adventurous still. At first blush his narrative reads as if it were absolutely factual. A great deal of material, economic, and social history is put in place, then THWS is introduced into the midst, with only the occasional foray into what THWS "must have felt" (for example, the child listening to his parents talk about religion). Wood's evidence is unapologetically circumstantial evidence. In several places he introduces what he calls "shadow lives," excursions into biographies of people like Robert Southwell and Emilia Lanier, whose lives may have intersected with THWS's. There are also "shadow texts" like Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Imposters, invoked in connection with Lear, and Virgil's Aeneid, in connection with The Tempest. Often this circumstantial evidence leads Wood to strikingly original observations, such as the use he makes of two "joyned beds" included in the inventory of the goods of Anne Hathaway's father, recently deceased when THWS came courting. At the time, only Anne and her brother Bartholomew lived in the house at Shottery, "so, although pre-marital sex among the young usually took place in the open air in those days, the Hathaway home must have been especially attractive to William and the mistress of the house" (81). But how sure can we be that premarital sex usually took place outside? It does in "It was a lover and his lass ... who through the green cornfields did hie." But did it always? Wood notes that, although the path from Stratford to Shottery now skirts allotment gardens and housing estates, THWS "would have passed through cornfields on either side" (81)--green cornfields, one imagines. Wood's circumstantial evidence works best when he is staying closest to his documentary sources. Wood is at his interpretative best when he describes his retracing of THWS's visit to the College of Heralds in London when he was renewing his father's application for a court of arms. The physical premises today are different, but the documents that Wood examines there--the interviewers' scribbled notes of his interview with THWS, the multiple drafts of the grant--create "one of the most intimate moments of the biography" (167).
Wood's incursions into the plays and poems are surprisingly rare. "It is often said that we can't find out from his works what Shakespeare believed," Wood admits, "and to a degree that assertion is true of his plays, which were crafted for their audience. But his poems are different because in most of them he was free to say what he wanted, and the indications are that he did so. A few scholars have dismissed the search for real people in the sonnets as fantasy. But there are strong reasons to think that Shakespeare used his poems as ways of getting things off his chest" (177). At this game Greenblatt is both more daring and more subtle. In his attempt to "discover" the actual person who wrote the most important imaginative literature of the past thousand years Greenblatt cultivates a double consciousness not unlike that possessed by WSAF. "Since the actual person is a matter of well-documented public record," Greenblatt says, Will in the World "aims to read the shadowy paths that lead from the life he lived into the literature he created" (12). Greenblatt finds this double life even in the sonnets, which seem so direct: "To be a very public man--an actor onstage, a successful playwright, a celebrated poet, and at the same time to be a very private man--a man who can be trusted with secrets, a writer who keeps his intimate affairs to himself and subtly encodes all references to others: this was the double life Shakespeare had chosen for himself" (249). External events--books read, people met, scenes observed, conversations overheard--become, along the shadowy path that Greenblatt treads, words in the theater. Internal experience figures as the way station between these events. The effect is to create an illusion of presence. "Shakespeare" becomes the placeholder between people and events in the historical record and the representation of those people and events in Shakespeare's plays and poems. As a result, "Shakespeare" seems both there and not there. Sometimes he is intimately present, as in Greenblatt's treatment of the sonnets as records of erotic imagination, but more often he is curiously absent: "Shakespeare was a master of double-consciousness. He was a man who spent his money on a coat of arms but who mocked the pretentiousness of such a claim; a man who invested in real estate but who ridiculed in Hamlet precisely such an entrepreneur as he himself was; a man who spent his life and his deepest energies in the theater but who laughed at the theater and regretted making himself a show" (155). Academic readers have tended to write off Will in the World as a work of fiction. Greenblatt's skill in cultivating a double consciousness--so like the skill of an actor pretending to be someone else--produces a story that, for me at least, is just as plausible as the stories that stay closer to external evidence.
These differences among the nine writers in (1) the kind of evidence they marshal and how they handle it are allied with (2) the different degrees to which the narrator in each case recedes or intrudes and (3) the very different balances these narrators set up between external third-person narrative and appeals to first-person subjectivity. The most insistently present narrators here are Bevington and Wells. Both authors offer their books as summations of lifetime experience with "Shakespeare." In the first sentence of the preface Wells declares that his book "is based on a half-century's engagement with Shakespeare" (xviii) and provides an account of that engagement, beginning with Wells's grammar-school teacher in Hull, memorable performances he saw as an undergraduate in London between 1948 and 1951, and later as director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and vice-chair of the governors of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bevington is no less present in the pages of Shakespeare: The Seven Ages of Human Experience. The book is presented to readers as the record "of a continuing journey of discovery" (xi) that has involved colleagues and students across nearly fifty years. Amid the ideological bickering of the academic establishment, amid terrorism, rapid social change, environmental degradation, and name-calling that passes for political discourse, Bevington professes personal loyalty to the "Shakespeare" who can be depended on "to question our answers" (247). At the opposite extreme, in splendid third-person detachment, stands Kermode. The others are ranged in between, with Ackroyd closer to the first-person side and Shapiro closer to the third-person side. With respect to the subject at hand, "Shakespeare," a sense of intimacy is not necessarily allied with the forwardness or diffidence of the storyteller. The most intimate "Shakespeare" among these nine accounts is Greenblatt's, even though Greenblatt as author function maintains a respectful distance. The trick in achieving this subjectivity effect is deftly to fuse THWS with CWWS without directly appealing to WSAF, all the while casting WSCI as more a magician with words than a recorder of historical events.
How Does the Story Engage with Political Issues?
Despite the political turn in academic criticism since the 1970s, the Literature and Drama shelves in Borders and Barnes & Noble are usually closer to the History and Philosophy shelves than they are to the Politics and Political Science shelves. One might have supposed that these nine books, commercial products designed for "general readers," would have little to say about the politics of THWS, WSAF, CWWS, or even WSCI. That is not the case. What varies among the books is the focus--politics then versus politics now--and the terms in which political interests are framed. The explicit concern in most of these books is turned toward the politics of THWS's own time and place. Political and social history is, indeed, the main subject of Kermode's book. However, Kermode's concerns with the big questions about succession and royal power, social mobility, and economic history turn out to be anything but typical. In most of the other books, the obsessive interest falls instead on one question: was or was not THWS a Catholic?
Wood answers that question with an emphatic yes. Other political happenings--the Essex Rebellion, for example--are very much "shadow events" in comparison with religious politics. Wood's most interesting gambit is to read Henry VIII as an attempt, late in WSAF's career, to bridge the Catholic-Protestant divide. Wells treats the Catholic hypothesis about "William Shakeshafte" cautiously, pronouncing it "an intriguing theory" (21) and ultimately deciding that "the absence of dogma" in WSAF's writings offsets the altogether circumstantial evidence about THWS's Catholic connections. Greenblatt gives the Catholic hypothesis more sympathetic play but concludes, "Out of a tissue of gossip, hints, and obscure clues a shadowy picture can be glimpsed, rather as one can glimpse a figure in the stains on an old wall" (103). For Greenblatt, as for Wells, WSAF fails to pass the ultimate test: how Catholics and Catholic dogma are portrayed in CWWS. In sum, "If his father was both Catholic and Protestant, William Shakespeare was on his way to being neither" (113). Shapiro's THWS and WSAF are likewise secular. The question of THWS's religious sensibilities is approached by Shapiro obliquely, via Flavius's use of religious terms in his iconoclastic instructions to Marcus in Julius Caesar: "Go you down that way towards the Capitol; / This way will I. Disrobe the images / If you do find them decked with ceremonies" (152). The translation of religious terminology to a theatrical space is symptomatic, Shapiro argues, of the transubstantiation whereby the secular stage in the later sixteenth century took on the functions of the religious rituals of pre-Reformation England. Ackroyd's range of political reference is broader, but he too gives the Catholic hypothesis full consideration and concludes that the presence of a large Catholic constituency in the Stratford of THWS's youth "does not necessarily imply that Shakespeare himself professed that faith--assuming that he professed any--only that he found the company of Catholics familiar" (39).
The desire to establish that THWS was secular, skeptical, tactical, or at least only conventionally Protestant makes sense for the latte-drinking buyers of these books, but concern about religion suggests more than a narrowly historical interest. It points, I believe, to an absolutely contemporary, early twenty-first-century anxiety about the place of individuals within cultural pluralism. The ideological standoffs that Bevington finds characteristic of late twentieth-century academic criticism--feminists, deconstructionists, Marxists, close readers, Christian interpreters, students of cultural studies all competing to deliver The Truth--have been supplanted, among academics at least, by a political culture of accommodation in which the supposed Catholic identity of THWS emerges as an exemplary test case.
What Accounts for the Story's Hold on the Reader?
That man with the Prada shoulder bag on his way to the Self-Help section--why would he want to buy one of these books? Probably for the same reason that he might decide to buy a copy of People magazine in a supermarket checkout line: to find out something behind or beyond or under or perhaps within an otherwise opaque, publicly available image. Is there an inside to this outside? WSCI is the reason these nine books have sold well. "How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare"--that is, how THWS became WSCI--is Greenblatt's subtitle. Shapiro, too, confesses, "At the heart of this book is the familiar desire to understand how Shakespeare became Shakespeare" (xiii). Bevington alludes to "the mystery" of why "Shakespeare" continues to engage "our imaginations" (284). Wood deploys the same mystery-motif when he chooses to begin Shakespeare with the whitewashing of the wall paintings in the Guild Chapel in Stratford three years before Shakespeare's birth. "So here's a parable at the start of our tale, but one full of ambiguity," Wood declares. "What lies under the whitewash? What lies behind actions and words in an age when covering up, concealment and dissimulation became the order of the day? Such questions are as relevant to the life of the greatest poet of all time as they are to untangling the tale of his father and his neighbors in his home town" (11). Wood's Shakespeare is all about a mystery that has been covered up, about getting at the truth that four centuries of Shakespeare scholarship and high-culture imperialism have whitewashed.
So what's behind the whitewash over "Shakespeare"? I personally can think of a few possible things: that THWS was a sodomite, that he was very ready to sue a tenant over unpaid rent, that he wrote the two plays per year that his agreement with his fellows demanded and no more than that. But, no, what lies behind Wood's whitewash is something much more mundane: Shakespeare's regional accent, the likelihood that he was a Catholic, perhaps his chronic depression as registered in Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. These are things that I, the guy in the checkout line at Borders, standing behind the guy with the Prada shoulder bag, can relate to. Madame Bovary, c'est moi. William Shakespeare, that's me. I disappear into "Shakespeare." In that respect, Nolen's quest for Shakespeare's Face may be the most basic and honest book here. It trades on the need to find a psychologically compelling likeness to put to WSAF. And the more that face "likes me," the better. As Alexander Leggatt in his contribution to Shakespeare's Face frankly admits, "Pictures can help us organize our ideas, and a picture of a writer can help us organize our ideas about the writer" (281). The versions of "Shakespeare" on display in these nine books are, with the exception of the Sanders portrait in Nolen's book, verbal representations, not visual. All the more reason, perhaps, that they should return our gaze so intently. But, of course, words printed on the page and pigments suspended in oil are not the same thing as a person. What captures our imagination is an illusion. It is the elusiveness of the face in the Sanders portrait that Leggatt likes most. "The Droeshout Shakespeare gives us a flat stare," Leggatt observes, "the Sanders Shakespeare looks away; the Sanders Shakespeare is more human. That face keeps its secrets--including the secret of its identity. The fact that it does so may be, paradoxically, one of the best arguments for seeing it as the face of Shakespeare" (297).
The last two sections in Garber's introduction, "Shakespeare and Culture" and "Planet Shakespeare," demonstrate how "Shakespeare literacy" has changed over time. Earlier assumptions, in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, that readers and listeners would know all about specific plays and the contexts from which quotations are taken, have been supplanted by a free-for-all in which lines are cited out of context as guarantors of cultural wisdom and the correctness of the writer or speaker's own position. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin": you can buy a coffee mug inscribed with that line from Troilus and Cressida, but in its original context the line refers, not to the common humanity that people share across times and cultures, but to the sexual impulses that humans share with beasts. Garber cites from The Congressional Record a number of outrageous examples of such misappropriations. At the same time, I would observe, the plots of WSAF have been cut loose from the words in which they once were embodied, so that sisterly rivalry in The Taming of the Shrew can become a contemporary teen flick in Ten Things I Hate About You. And academics love the validation.
Is it Mercury, Clio, or Narcissus who serves as muse to these nine books?
(1.) Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 11.
(2.) Robert Greene, Greene's Groats-worth of Wit (1592), excerpt repr. in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: Norton, 1997), 3321-22; Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds, "Shakespace and Transversal Power," in Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital, ed. Hedrick and Reynolds (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 3-47.
(3.) These references to Shakespeare's name are collected in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and Williana Montgomery, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press), lxv-lxvi.
(4.) My reference is to 2H4, 5.1.133-35, in Shakespeare, Works, ed. Wells et al., 2nd ed., 506.
(5.) Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" (1969), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Josue V. Hatari, repr., among other places, in Criticism: The Major Statements, ed. Charles Kaplan and William Davis Anderson, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 544-58.
(6.) S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 21, 136, 250.
(7.) Trevor Nunn, William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: A Screenplay (London: Methuen, 1996), unpaginated.
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|Title Annotation:||the historical William Sakespeare, Collected Works William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare as Author Function, William Shakespeare as Cultural Icon|
|Author:||Smith, Bruce R.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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