Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Shakespeare!

Our book today is Katherine Duncan-Jones' roistering, clear-eyed Ungentle Shakespeare from 2001, which does the seeming impossible: takes the vast world of Shakespeare scholarship and pseudo-biography and distils it into a terse and crackling-good book that actually leaves even the least-Bardophile reader wanting more.

To put it mildly, we've come a long way from our complaints about the lack of biographies for Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare's case is the exact opposite: far, far too much gets written about him every fifteen minutes, all over the world. Thousands of critical studies of his works, thousands of anthologies of his plays and poems, thousands of biographies - thousands of biographies! When Spenser can't get even a couple, and when Harington, Chapman, and even Ben Jonson have to go scrounging. Hell, more biographies have been written about Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, than have been written about Christopher Marlowe - solely on the basis of some theory that de Vere might have been Shakespeare (such theories also exist about Marlowe, of course, and virtually every other person who was alive in the 16th century). The glut is enormous - and it shows no sign of ending.

That glut is made all the more ironic because we know so little about Shakespeare's life. Oh, it's been fashionable for at least 70 years to say we know lots about his life, more than we know about any other Elizabethan playwright except Jonson - I've read that many times in many contexts, and it always baffles me. Even if we didn't have the overwhelming curiosity about every detail of Shakespeare's life that's naturally generated by our love of his works, we'd still find all the huge gaps in our knowledge frustrating; but we do have that love, so we do have that curiosity, which makes the little we know all the more frustrating.

It forces his biographers to serial feats of supposition, and in this Duncan-Jones can't be any different. Her guesses and theories are lively and fascinating - for instance, she wonders if Shakespeare might not have been acquainted with Sir Fulke Greville of Beauchamps Court, the father of the best friend of the famous poet Sidney:
The first steps of Shakespeare's route towards 'a fellowship in a cry of players' may have been taken during his training in declamatory and acting skills at Stratford Grammar School. He would have had opportunities to display those skills to large audiences in Whitsuntide plays in Stratford in the early 1580s. As a result of such seasonal performances, he perhaps came to the notice of Sir Fulke Greville of Beauchamps Court, and for a couple of years served him in some capacity, probably as a player, possibly also as a clerk or secretary. Greville was very closely allied to the Dudleys, and his large retinue would be a natural source of recruitment for his powerful friend Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. As a member of Leicester's Men for some time between 1584 and 1586, Shakespeare would have quickly showed his versatility both in writing and performing.

But you can hear all the 'would have's and 'might have's even in so short a passage, and they're everywhere in Ungentle Shakespeare, as they must be in any life of the Bard. Take a passage like this:
A possible order of events is as follows: Southampton gave Shakespeare a good reward for Lucrece - probably between 5 and 10 pounds - in April or May 1594. Not only was Shakespeare more handsomely rewarded for Lucrece than for Venus, the poem also reflected closer relations between the poet and the stylish young nobleman - perhaps ... including sexual relations. It may have been in 1594-5, and for Southampton, a reluctant bridegroom who eventually had to pay a large fine for refusing to marry Burghley's grand-daughter Elizabeth Vere, that early versions of sonnets 1-17 were written, of which Burghley would thoroughly approve.

There's hardly a pair of lines in that whole stretch that aren't educated guesses. We don't know what Shakespeare was paid for the two poems he dedicated to Southampton, or even that he was paid at all. We don't know if they ever even met, much less rogered each other on the Earl's damask cushions. We don't know the dates involved with any certainty, nor do we know if Lord Burghley ever knew the sonnets existed, much less read them with approval (or even commissioned them as some kind of procreative encouragement for Southampton). Duncan-Jones is forced to speculate on all of it, and despite how good she is at speculation, we should remind ourselves that most Shakespeare scholars would give back every dime they've ever made off publishing speculation if they could just have a couple of pages from a Pepys-style journal Shakespeare might have kept, or two or three paragraphs of reminiscences from people who knew him.

Or maybe even some funeral notices, which you'd expect to see if the most famous and popular playwright of the era died in the fullness of his age. The fact that no such notices exist has certainly fired the 'alternate' theories of every Shakespeare-didn't-do-it theorist of the so-called Authorship Question (since one glaring possibility why Shakespeare received no death-notices is because none of his colleagues thought he'd done anything to deserve them, being only a semi-literate malt-hoarder from Stratford-on-Avon), Again, there's only so much Duncan-Jones can do with such a gap, and in the end she resorts to a dodge so old even Jonson was a little ashamed to use it:
The unhappy circumstances of Shakespeare's death may have been widely known among his London friends. We know nothing of what ceremonies attache to his funeral in Stratford on 25 April. They perhaps accorded wth instructions given orally or in writing to John Hall, or else may have conformed to Hall's own austerely Protestant inclinations. There is no reason to think that patrons or fellow poets assembled to attach their tributes to his hearse. It is striking that there was no immediate rush of elegies or epitaphs from his friends, colleagues or admirers. Even what may be the earliest poetical tribute, a sonnet by William Basse, seems to have been written some time later, to judge by its retrospective subtitle 'he died in April 1616.' It may have taken several years for recollections and rumours of the unpleasant details of Shakespeare's end to fade, to be replaced by a return to what, after all, was the best of him: his writings.

So the central irony of the continuing boom in Shakespeare lives is undimmed: we get more and more books, as numberless as sands on the strand, about a man who is - and almost certainly always will be - little more than a ghost, while all his colleagues in the great enterprise of Elizabethan literature peep about to find themselves dishonorable graves. Still, if you only want to read one Shakespeare biography, my recommendation would be this one. It's lively as hell, and he would have liked that - maybe.

No comments: