This elusive individual is the subject of Russell Fraser's two-part biography, Young Shakespeare and Shakespeare, the Later Years. Throughout Fraser supplements the civic documents with quotations from the plays, glossing the life with the drama. A risky endeavor, it is perhaps something most of us do anyway, consciously or unconsciously projecting a playwright (often much like us) from the plays. For Fraser, Shakespeare's "personal life, though he buries it deep, participates in his art, an energizing presence." The two parts of this biography thus follow the plays in roughly chronological order, glancing from the dramatic to the personal and the social, and back again. Some of the quotations strung through this narrative are useful; many others are merely decorative.
Fraser's underlying theme is historical transition, so the Shakespeare we get is a divided individual, halfway between medieval and modern England, rural Stratford and urban London. (Following E. A. J. Honigmann and others, Fraser subscribes to an "early" Shakespeare who began acting and writing during the 1580s.) Fraser is direct and unapologetic when it comes to characterizing Shakespeare; any responsible account of this biography should in turn convey the specifics of his descriptions. The following paragraphs gather observations scattered through the two-part life.
"Acquisitive Shakespeare" was "cold-blooded and provident," "a shrewd countryman," a "through and through professional," "a man who set store by material things," who "knew what to do when the wind was rising," and was "not slow to exploit his [economic and class] advantage." "Business was his pleasure," so perhaps it was no accident that "alone among his contemporaries, he combined the roles of actor, playwright, and shareholder in his company." Shakespeare the businessman habitually "sought assurance in parchment" - hence our paper trail. In sum, Fraser gives us "a civil citizen living mostly in the mind."
This Shakespeare is careful, cold, and sometimes ruthless. One of his changes of residence in London, for instance, seems painfully close to tax dodging, and the pattern of his personal finances places him only this side of avarice. How to reconcile this person with the plays and poems? Fraser admits the difficulty: "Punctilious in business matters, on his personal side he lacks definition." In important instances, however, Shakespeare the artist may coincide with Shakespeare the businessman. To Fraser, for example, "Sometimes you feel that Shakespeare, invoking an artist's privilege, sought to better everyday life in the plays, perhaps to make a better Shakespeare. If you needed money from his Merchant of Venice, all you had to do was ask." Did Shakespeare write what he couldn't be? It is both tantalizing and frightening to think of the plays' humanity as the wish fulfillment of an essentially hollow individual.
If Shakespeare wasn't especially generous with his money, perhaps this stinginess tells us why he was reluctant to write anyone's epitaph or eulogy save his own. It was probably Henry Chettle who scolded Shakespeare (in England's Mourning Garment) for not mourning, in print, Elizabeth's death, but this scold fell on deaf ears: Shakespeare may well have felt that only a fool writes for nothing, or (what may be the same thing) for the dead.
The largess of his plays is another matter, for we usually think about them in terms of copia - their wealth of positions, themes, characters, images, and language. Fraser's account of Shakespeare's dramatic craft hints at a relation between the playwright's personal stinginess and what we could call this aesthetic generosity. If "Impersonal," "Accommodating" Shakespeare is "self-effacing" and "a self-protective playwright," he is also "circumambiant," "the man who sees all round": "Absorbed in the work, he got out of himself or transcended himself. If he had 'views,' he checked them at the door of the playhouse." Indeed, the plays belong to a person who did his passionate living in art, and made sure that this art "gave" in a way he may not have been willing or able to. Not "pro or anti," Shakespeare wrote generously, making the plays almost all things to almost all people:" 'always' isn't one of his words"; concepts to him are like "oil and water"; "abstractions aren't part of his purview"; "-isms are what he isn't capable of, or rather he entertains them all."
But this generosity poses a problem for Fraser: If Shakespeare checked his views at the door, and consciously entertained copious positions and ideas, how can a biographer justify reading the life in the art? Such might not be a problem in relation to lesser playwrights, or even with writers working in another mode and period. That Renaissance drama is especially slippery in terms of authorial beliefs can be seen in T. S. Eliot's dictum on Thomas Middleton, whose personality and views proved similarly elusive: "He remains merely a name, a voice, the author of certain plays. . . . He has no point of view, is neither sentimental nor cynical; he is neither resigned, nor disillusioned, nor romantic, he has no message. He is merely the name which associates six or seven great plays." The problem is difficult to resolve, and we can be both pleased and skeptical that Fraser incorporates this difficulty into his definition of Shakespeare the individual.
Fraser is particularly good at seeing patterns and forms: repeated motifs and themes like the phoenix, and the story of Troy; the morality-play arrangement of characters on stage; the palimpsest of two Londons, modern and Elizabethan (and where Elizabethan things "are" in relation to contemporary landmarks). Especially impressive are his readings of the "upstart crow" passage, of Hamlet, and of Coriolanus. A major hitch to an otherwise fascinating story, though, is Fraser's prose style. Each sentence starts a new direction, resulting in a printed page that's often hard to read. Commas are asked to bear herculean weight, little effort is made to ease the reader's task. Added to this is Fraser's use of both British and American colloquialisms: no matter where the reader is from, he or she is bound to be puzzled by particular expressions in these two volumes. A lover of Art, Fraser frequently alludes to Henry James (at least once making it easy to suppose he's talking about King James), to Michelangelo, and to Mozart, but never mentions Middleton - a strange omission, Eliot notwithstanding.
Often hard to read, this life almost continually instructs and entertains, for Fraser has a deep feel for the person he sees behind the plays. Shakespeare's next biographer will have to read it. Undoubtedly important to the next life of Shakespeare will also be the following three items, not covered by Fraser: Donald Foster's findings on the dramatic roles which (from linguistic evidence) Shakespeare most likely acted; John Tobin's research into Shakespeare's habitual quarrying of Nashe's works (often in manuscript) for words and phrases; and several essays in Norman Holland's collection, Shakespeare's Personality.
Douglas Bruster UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1995|
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