Nine Lives of William Shakespeare

After so much ado, why not a metabiography of the Bard that explores all his guises? asks Willy Maley

October 20, 2011

That nine lives are better than one - as any cat will tell you - is borne out by a recent letter to Times Higher Education ("Doubt thou the star?", 6 October), which states that "The argument that William Shakespeare was not the prime author of the plays attributed to him has absolutely no basis in historical fact" and those who suggest otherwise "unfairly taint the work of scholars who have studied the authors with whom Shakespeare is known to have collaborated". Go figure. The letter berates those "proponents of alternative candidates" on the grounds that they "call into question and insult the work of thousands of scholars who have patiently assembled the documentary record for Shakespeare's life and times" and the thousands of teachers who "labour to educate the public about who Shakespeare was and how his plays relate to his time". The letter is signed by nine - yes, nine! - members of the British Shakespeare Association (on behalf of the thousands, etc).

One of its signatories, Stanley Wells, has spoken gushingly of "Sweet Master Shakespeare" as a boy who "ate and drank, belched and farted, urinated and defecated...As adolescence came on he began to experience erections and to feel desire. He masturbated and, earlier than most of his contemporaries, copulated". A case of too much information arising from too little? What would Freud make of such musings on the young bard's hard-ons? Convinced that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, Freud spoke of "a powerful need in us", faced with bare-bones evidence, to believe in Shakespeare. But Shakespeare got there before Freud. When Coriolanus acts "As if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kin", and Posthumus asks "Is there no way for men to be, but women/Must be half-workers?" we discern a critique of masculine individualism, or, as I call it, the "bard-on".

If this letter proved that the Shakespeare authorship question is an irony-free zone, then that might be interesting in itself, even amusing. Those vested interests hot under the ruff about others "adopting an extremely sceptical position in relation to...documents and...references" may conjure up gangs of feral Shakespeareans roaming Arden looking for a Baconian, Marlovian or Oxfordian to set about, but they tell us more about the power of naming. In an essay on Romeo and Juliet, Jacques Derrida deconstructs the "rose by any other name" speech, showing exactly why Shakespeare's name matters, and not merely as the bardolator's fetish.

Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o maintains that "by iconizing Shakespeare, his very revolutionary potential tends to be killed or ignored. Shakespeare the icon, the bad Shakespeare, is the one who is talked about as a great writer, a genius". For Michael Bristol, "The real Shakespeare - like the real Santa Claus - doesn't actually exist at all, except as the imaginary projection of an important tradition of social desire." To doubt his existence invites tears before bedtime - and the same goes for Santa. When Mark Twain declared Shakespeare "a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris", it was a dig at those who flesh out this dramatic dinosaur with anecdote and invention.

Graham Holderness knows the power of the Shakespeare myth and its fictions, the "fur coat and no knickers" tradition of bardolatrous biography prevalent among Stratfordian autograph-hunters. In this volume, Holderness offers a twist. The series in which it appears, Shakespeare Now! - "a rallying cry for aesthetic immediacy" - recalls the "very now" (how now can you get?) of Iago's tupping's-worth of malice against Othello. If "Now" is all the rage, then so is nine, occurring 60 times in Shakespeare, and a magic number in Macbeth, where the witches depend on it for their curses, "Pour in sow's blood, that hath eaten/Her nine farrow."

Holderness knows his way around the fragments that pass for facts in biographical studies of Shakespeare, and his nine farrow are marketable little piggies. Like Hotspur, he'll cavil on the ninth part of a hair, but is also aware that the Shakespeare authorship question can be summed up as two bald men fighting over a comb. He starts by summarising the work of those "thousands of scholars" stoutly defended by the Stratford Nine, prefaced by the observation that what he is presenting is "A brief life of Shakespeare, based purely on these historical documents, and drawing no inferences at all about any autobiographical content in the writing". Two pages later, we're done.

As Holderness observes: "'Traditions', in the favoured language of Shakespeare biographers, may be facts, but their relevance to Shakespeare's life is not factual ... they derive from anecdotes and annotations rather than legal documents; they are in the manner of stories and legends rather than pieces of concrete documentary evidence." He then nails the "life and times" brigade, who can call monsters from the vasty deep, provided you don't ask for evidence: "Restless under the constraints of the historical record, biographers end up telling us about many things besides Shakespeare, and filling the empty spaces with their own preoccupations." Thus most Shakespeare biographies are both autobiographies and acts of blatant self-promotion. But if done well, the genre has merit, and he finds inspiration in Stephen Greenblatt's formidable Will in the World. However, Holderness is all too aware that Shakespeare is also a will-o'-the-wisp, and that biographers must bury this truth and act as if "A wisp of straw were worth a thousand crowns".

The nine lives of the title are nine theories or scraps of evidence eked out by the Bard's biographers that Holderness approaches from different angles, as scholar, sceptic and creative writer, dividing each chapter into "Facts", "Traditions" and "Speculations". His lives are a meeting of sorts between the nine muses and the nine worthies. Recognising the flimsy factual basis for Shakespeare biography, he draws on wit and wordplay to flesh out a fiction more palatable than the po-faced fantasies of the scholarly biographers. Here, he follows in the footsteps of Anthony Burgess, whose Nothing Like the Sun (1964) set the bar high for fictional accounts of the Bard's life, but Holderness has form in this regard, as author of The Prince of Denmark (2002), a fictional sequel to Hamlet, and a short drama, Wholly Writ, playfully exploring Shakespeare's hand in the King James Bible.

Holderness insists that his is "the first biographical study to proceed on the assumption that Shakespeare's various lives are multiple and discontinuous". His "metabiographical" approach in his fictional passages shows him to be a better writer than Wells, but Burgess is a taller order. The nine Shakespeares on show here - writer, player, butcher boy, businessman, husband, friend, lover, Catholic and portrait - are each lovingly dissected before being painstakingly reassembled.

True to the book's tenor, fiction is stronger than truth. Holderness offers "nine lives for the price of one", which in Shakespeare studies, where authorial hyperinflation and factual scarcity go hand in glove, seems a fair exchange. His vision of writing as "a collective and collaborative cultural activity" chimes with Renaissance writing practices and modern scholarship, too, as witness that nine-handed letter to THE. If only its signatories saw the funny side. Doubt thou the star? No, but even if we share the sonneteer's hyperbole that "nothing this wide universe I call/Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all", we know there are other stars, other roses, other names, other lives. In the best Shakespearean tradition, scholars will still speak with ghosts and dare to doubt.

The Author

Graham Holderness says he has no patience with those who claim that Shakespeare could not have written the plays and poems attributed to him because he came from a poor background and had only a grammar-school education. "To me Shakespeare is a writer of the people, who saw life from below," he says.

Holderness has written several studies of early modern literature and says he aims to reach a broad audience.

As a boy, he was given a set of classic novels for Christmas, including works by Charles Kingsley, Jonathan Swift and Anna Sewell, which sparked his interest in literature. He went on to complete a degree and doctoral studies in the subject, and received his second PhD in 2008 from the University of Hertfordshire, where he has lectured since 1992 and where he is now professor of English.

When asked what he likes to do in his spare time, he replies: "It's not so much that I have no spare time as that my work in itself consists of comedy and tragedy, theatre and film, books and pictures, people and places. Why should I want anything else?"

Nine Lives of William Shakespeare

By Graham Holderness

Continuum, 240pp, £18.99

ISBN 9781441151858

Published 6 October 2011

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.