Back story brought to centre stage

Will in the World
December 24, 2004

An imaginative historical approach to Shakespeare taps into his greatest hopes and deepest fears, Kiernan Ryan finds

In Postmodern Pooh , Frederick Crews' wicked satire on the state of contemporary criticism, Stephen J. Greenblatt, the chief architect of New Historicism, is travestied in the guise of Victor S. Fassell, reluctant founder of "The New - All-New! - Negotiationism" and author of The Sorcerer's Appendix: Early Modern Medicine and the Alchemy of the Sonnet .

As the pun spliced into his surname suggests (bearing American pronunciation in mind), Fassell's forte is creating facile connections between wildly incongruous domains. Indeed the whole New Negotiationist movement sprang, according to Crews, from a casual remark by Fassell about "the curious mutuality between Vasco da Gama and the viola da gamba".

Anyone familiar with Greenblatt's brilliant, trailblazing studies of Shakespeare will recognise that there is a germ of truth in this burlesque, and will be unsurprised to learn that Victor Fassell's fingerprints are all over this spellbinding biography of the Bard. But then again, how could they not be? As Greenblatt cautions the reader in a prefatory note, we do not even know for sure that Shakespeare was born on April 23, and have no proof that he attended the Stratford grammar school - never mind the bigger mysteries of where he spent the "lost years" between school and stage, or the true identities of "Mr W. H." and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Bereft of certainty about the most elementary facts, what can any new life of the dramatist do but resign itself to what Greenblatt calls "groping in the darkness of biographical speculation"?

Well, for a start it can draw a distinction between weak speculation and strong speculation, and make sure that there is a lot more of the latter than the former. Greenblatt undoubtedly blurs the distinction, but his compelling conjectures far outweigh his brittle surmises, shedding more light on "the shadowy paths that lead from the life he lived into the literature he created" than any other biography of Shakespeare I have read.

Speculation of the weaker sort runs rampant in the opening chapter, "Primal scenes", whose sly mutations of "possibly" into "clearly" and "perhaps" into "must have" leave the gulf between fact and fancy yawning.

It might well be, as Greenblatt muses, that boys kissing boys dressed as women in school plays by Plautus and Terence turned the adolescent Shakespeare on to the transgressive thrill of the theatre, sowing the seeds of sexual ambiguity that bore such ripe fruit in As You Like It and Twelfth Night . It might also be that when he was 11 he happened to witness the fabulous spectacle staged for Queen Elizabeth I at Kenilworth by the Earl of Leicester, and that 20 years on, in A Midsummer Night's Dream , his imagination "drew on the scene at Kenilworth in crafting a gorgeous compliment to Elizabeth" couched in a speech by Oberon. But as neither supposition is anchored in evidence, it is impossible to credit them or to care about their implications.

The same goes for the rootless contention later in the book that Falstaff is a composite portrait of Shakespeare's feckless father, who Greenblatt thinks may have been undone by drink, and the louche hack Robert Greene, who mocked the rising star from the sticks as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers". It is equally hard to swallow the theory that Shakespeare met the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion face to face while he was on the run; that the trial and execution of the Queen's physician, the Portuguese Jew Roderigo Lopez, hold a key to The Merchant of Venice ; or that Hamlet hinges on Shakespeare's papist fear that his dead son, Hamnet, might be languishing in Purgatory, soon to be joined there by his recusant father, John.

It is not just that such hunches are too tenuous or too remotely relevant to be tenable. They also recycle, ironically, the old historicist assumptions and gambits that New Historicism was supposed to displace. In so doing they confirm the suspicion that New Historicism's resemblance to its arthritic precursor is more striking than it is inclined to acknowledge. Their consanguinity is certainly conspicuous in the penultimate chapter, "Bewitching the king", in which Greenblatt pins Macbeth on the usual suspects lined up by topical scholarship at its most tiresome: the Gunpowder Plot, the equivocating Jesuit priest, Henry Garnet, and Shakespeare's desire to suck up to King James, the descendant of Banquo, and feed his fascination with witchcraft. So unpersuasive are these avowed sources of the play that Greenblatt himself ditches them in a belated volte-face, inviting us to confront instead the unfathomable enigma that pulses at its core.

So much for the weak strain of speculation that runs through Will in the World . The strong strain is quite another matter. Its strength lies in the convincing story Greenblatt weaves from the parallels that do exist between the plotline of Shakespeare's life and the leitmotivs of his art. It is a tale that has begged to be told for the best part of a century, but which needed Greenblatt's unique fusion of narrative flair, critical acuity and imaginative empathy to unlock it.

It begins with a boy blessed from birth with prodigious verbal power and an unbridled fantasy. As he grew up, the boy absorbed all that the classical authors on the curriculum had to offer and all that the folk culture and popular drama of his native Warwickshire could teach him about spinning a yarn on a stage. When he left that rustic world behind to try his luck as an actor and playwright in London, he never forgot its language or its lore, which left their earthy imprint on everything he wrote. As Greenblatt observes, captivated though he was by exotic locations, archaic cultures and titanic protagonists, "Shakespeare's imagination never soared altogether above the quotidian, never entered the august halls of the metaphysical and shut the door to the everyday".

That awesome imagination was tethered to two traumatic facts of Shakespeare's life, whose consequences he was compelled to work through in his drama over and over again. The first was the well-documented financial collapse of his father during William's early teens and the decline of the family's fortunes, a plight exacerbated by the whiff of closet Catholicism that clung to John Shakespeare. How badly his eldest son was scarred by this debacle can be inferred from the pains he took, once he had achieved prosperity himself, to make his father's dream of gentility, in the shape of a coat of arms, come true.

Greenblatt's analysis of the "symbolic statement" Shakespeare made in that shield and crest, with its half-defiant, half-defensive motto " Non sanz droict " ("Not without right"), and the crucial clue it offers to the psychology of the man and the dramatist, is stunningly acute. A lifelong fixation on redeeming his family's honour and erasing its disgrace readily explains why Shakespeare was bent on stacking up property and bagging the best house in Stratford, while his rivals were plummeting into penury or obscurity. But, as Greenblatt shows, it also explains in play after play, from The Comedy of Errors at the dawn of his career to The Tempest at its close, "the peculiar intensity with which Shakespeare embraces the fantasy of the recovery of a lost property or title or identity". It is difficult to grasp the kind of gratification it must have given the glovemaker's lad to make his fortune by impersonating lords and kings, and by writing harrowing tragedies that dramatise their destruction.

The other great trauma that transfixed Shakespeare's mind and transfigured his art was self-inflicted. The shotgun wedding of the 18-year-old "William Shagspere" to the 26-year-old "Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the Dioces of Worcester maiden" saddled him with a wife and family that he spent the next 30 years avoiding in London, where he could easily have brought them to live if he had wished to. Small wonder that his plays display, as Greenblatt puts it, both "an overall diffidence in depicting marriages" and "a kind of nightmare in the two marriages they do depict with some care", those of Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet and the Macbeths. Indeed, many of the fathers in Shakespeare - King Lear and Prospero, for example - have been divorced from their spouses by death long before the play begins.

It can hardly be a coincidence, moreover, that, as Greenblatt reminds us, "The greatest lovers in Shakespeare are Antony and Cleopatra, the supreme emblems of adultery". The inscrutable Sonnets are scandalously inspired not by Anne, but by his perilous passion for a man above his station and his illicit lust for another woman. And his glaring neglect of his wife of 34 years in his will, which left the bulk of his wealth to his elder daughter, Susanna, speaks for itself. Yet in the sublime romances he penned in the twilight of his career, as he prepared to retire from the stage to Stratford, he also brooded obsessively on the anguish of exiled fathers and guilty husbands, whose lost daughters are finally found, and whose dead wives are miraculously restored to life.

It is impossible to do justice, within the compass of this review, to the skill with which Greenblatt cracks the genetic code of Shakespeare's drama, allowing us to see clearly for the first time the template of the life glowing through the texture of the work. About Shakespeare himself, as distinct from his plays, it has been widely believed that we know next to nothing. Now, thanks to this groundbreaking biography, which taps into Shakespeare's deepest fears and fantasies, we know that his plays reveal more about the man who wrote them than we ever dreamt of.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Author - Stephen Greenblatt
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 430
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 224 066 X

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