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Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life & Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem.

Katherine Duncan-Jones. Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life.

(The Arden Shakespeare.) London: Thomson Learning, 2001. xiv + 322 pp. index. illus. [pounds sterling]20. ISBN: 1-903436-26-5.

Diana Price. Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem.

(Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies, 94.) Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2001. xvi + 357 pp. index, append. illus. bibl. $45. ISBN: 0-313-31202-8.

The "problem" of Shakespearean authorship, fueled by the paucity of documents that link the writer to his work, has occupied scholars for over two hundred years. It is still flourishing today, as a recent film documentary asserting that Marlowe was responsible for the Shakespearean output, the establishment of a "Shakespeare Authorship" website on the internet, and the two books under review all demonstrate. These two books take different approaches to the problem. Katherine Duncan-Jones never denies that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him, but she takes issue with the characterization of the author "gentle," "sweet," etc.--that has become conventional. For Diana Price, Shakespeare the man from Stratford could never have authored the plays, though she has no specific alternative candidate.

As a Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford and the author of a highly regarded biography of Sidney, Duncan-Jones never claims, as most recent "anti-Stratfordians" do, that her iconoclasm is related to her independence from institutional pressures to deify Shakespeare. Her aim is to place the documentary evidence about his life, which often deals with legal and financial matters, into a cultural context that includes Shakespeare's writings and those of his contemporaries. But an even stronger motive, perhaps, is to show that Shakespeare was everything that pieties about his "gentleness" have discounted: aggressively competitive, socially ambitious, greedy about money, uncaring about his fellow-townsmen and about the fate of his wife and younger daughter, licentious--and, at the end of his life (she speculates), crippled with venereal disease.

The strength of Duncan-Jones' study is the impressive knowledge she brings to bear on the historical and literary circumstances under which Shakespeare lived and worked. The Midlands where he spent the first part of his life were by no means the cultural backwater that "anri-Stratfordians" have made them out to be. This region was home to palatial residences and royal entertainments, such as the earl of Leicester's at Kenilworth, and nurtured several other significant writers, notably Michael Drayton, whose grammar school education was also not followed by study at a university. (Since Shakespeare's lack of a university education has often been advanced by anti-Strarfordians as evidence that he could not have written the plays and poems, she makes the telling point that Ben Jonson, whose classical learning far exceeded Shakespeare's, did not go to one either.) It is not Duncan-Jones' intention to write a chronological biography, but rather to focus on important "scenes" of Shakespeare's career, including his emergence in the London theater in the 1590s, his sometimes ambivalent rivalries with other writers such as Nashe, Marston, and Jonson, his attempts to establish himself as gentrified by getting his coat of arms approved, his ownership of shares in his theatrical company and of substantial real estate, his involvement in litigation. The canvas she draws is a rich and derailed one, placing the career not only in relationship to other writers, but to non-literary circumstances: Shakespeare's probable patrons, the change of rulership in 1603, the periods of plague in London which closed the theaters, imposing economic hardship on the players and encouraging non-dramatic writing.

But Duncan-Jones reads the available documentary evidence from a single-minded and sometimes distorted perspective in order to prove that he was a dislikable, even reprehensible character. For example, she pays little attention to Ben Jonson's tributes to Shakespeare except to extract one or two phrases and interpret them in a negative sense. "Gentle" is always a slur intended to make fun of Shakespeare's social climbing, and any seemingly obvious compliments are really derogatory. Acknowledged speculations on her part are soon elaborated as established fact: "If, as I have conjectured, syphilis was one of Shakespeare's suspected or actual disorders..." (266) leads to a description of a depressed and corpulent man, imbibing excessive alcohol to staunch his pains, raging at Jonson's successes while Jonson came at the last to gloat over his rival's demise. Fortunately we are able to avert our eyes from this spectacle and look instead, as the Folio's preface urges, at Shakespeare's "book."

Diana Price's study is one of the more implausible of a long line of tendentious books discounting Shakespeare's authorship. The reasons why Shakespeare couldn't have written the works attributed to him are familiar to readers of this genre: he was not sufficiently educated for all the learning that the writings display; while the plays are written (allegedly) from an aristocratic perspective, he was not an aristocrat; there is simply insufficient evidence to link him to the works--no personal library, few documents dealing with his life (and these are mainly concerned with legal and financial matters), etc. She is of course right that the plays provide few clues to the personal side of the author, and that the documentation is nowhere near as full as posterity would like. But it is there, and her efforts to disqualify every available piece of evidence are more energetic than persuasive.

Price's method is to discount any reference to Shakespeare that does not indicate both personal knowledge of the man and of his works. Thus Drayton's praise of Shakespeare as a comic writer, or Francis Metes' 1598 list of twelve Shakespearean plays and the non-dramatic poems, do not count because they nowhere indicate personal knowledge of Shakespeare. Jonson's tributes to Shakespeare, which do in fact link man and writings, do not count because they were written after Shakespeare's death, and since Jonson is more complimentary about Shakespeare's "art" in the Folio than in Timber, the discrepancy invalidates both texts. To support her arguments she resorts to readings and paraphrases that ride roughshod over the sources. As an example, Jonson's assertion that the players' admiration for Shakespeare's fluency in "never blotting a line" was misguided ("I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted") becomes "Jonson dispa raged the ignorant players who mistook the clean copies that Shakspere delivered for the author's originals" (200).

The spelling "Shakspere" in the sentence above is not a misprint. Instead of positing a particular candidate for the authorship of the works, Price alleges that there was a "Shakspere" from Stratford who came to London and was associated with the theater (the evidence of links with Burbage, Heminges, and Condell is too strong), though largely in a financial capacity. Being ambitious and greedy (here she overlaps strongly with Duncan-Jones), Shakspere paid several writers--impoverished university men and especially courtiers who did not want to be stigmatized by associations with the stage--to write the works that he then published under the name "Shakespeare."

Price's book is testimony to our difficulty in linking the amazing creativity of Shakespeare's works with the mundane and scanty evidences of his life. But in addressing one problem she suggests something far more implausible (and I won't even touch the logistics of composition, transmission, and concealment involved): that several anonymous authors, mostly noblemen unconnected with the life of the theater, created works of astonishing dramatic vitality and linguistic power, when there is no evidence that a single other writer of the period, however famous, came close.
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Author:Lyons, Bridget Gellert
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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