The Private Life of William Shakespeare, by Lena Cowen Orlin

Peter J. Smith gets drowned in the detail of an ambitious study of the playwright’s milieu

November 29, 2021
Victorian engraving of the birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon
Source: iStock
Victorian engraving of Shakespeare’s birthplace

In spite of the inclusion on undergraduate reading lists of Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, the idea of a postmodern, autonomous text articulating itself like some dystopian lit-bot seems, fortunately, to have had its day. Within the past two decades, the pendulum has swung back towards the imminence of a thinking, feeling author, a person-ality, who creates texts, albeit under intertextual or psycho-biographical influences perhaps unknown to them.

We have already seen a string of post-millennial Shakespeare biographies by writers such as Michael Wood (2003), Stanley Wells (2003), Stephen Greenblatt (2004) and Peter Ackroyd (2006), all perching on the shoulders of the great Samuel Schoenbaum (1974) and the magisterial E. K. Chambers, whose tantalisingly titled William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (1930) and Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare (1946) imply just how arduous a task it is to assemble an authoritative life story of a provincial glover’s son born more than four and a half centuries ago.

The struggle is not compiling a timeline or a narrative of significant events in Shakespeare’s life (although, as Lena Cowen Orlin readily confesses, “the date of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown”) – there is plenty of surviving paperwork, even if its accuracy is often questionable. The difficulty, rather, is in the imaginative crossing over into a world cartographically incomplete, cosmologically vague and in which the supernatural was a governing presence. It’s easy to make Shakespeare “our contemporary” (as the title of a book by Jan Kott put it in 1967), much more difficult to become one of his.

The Private Life of William Shakespeare relies on the stories of the playwright’s contemporaries – the scoundrel butcher William Trowte, the businessman John Combe, the property dealer Richard Quiney, the testator Thomas Braithwaite and any number of Oxford scholars and divines who designed their own funerary monuments. By locating the playwright’s lived experience amid that of his contemporaries, Orlin refutes the “great-man myth of Shakespearean exceptionalism”. But too frequently, she steeps us in a level of detail that verges on an unimaginative meticulousness. Shakespeare’s doublet (on his monument in Holy Trinity) has 29 buttons, while “Dugdale has eleven or twelve, Hollar has thirteen or fourteen; the engraver for Rowe, relying on Hollar in 1709, has eleven; Vertue has twelve in 1725 and five in 1737; and Charles Grignion, following Hollar in 1786, has, ambiguously, six, seven, or eight.” Appendices and notes make up 41 per cent of the book.

The “private life” of the title sadly does not comprise the salacious details of Shakespeare in bed with his “master-mistress” but a life shrouded in a plethora of dates, names and identities that, understandably, refuse to yield up a single fixed biography. Hard evidence is replaced by Orlin’s ingenious “evidence clusters”, a set of overlapping circumstances or cognate instances suggesting, in all likelihood, that an event took place or that a certain process was followed.

If you want the “stiffly formulaic” intricacies of Elizabethan conveyancing, marital law or probate, this biography cannot be bettered. But I kept wishing for the odd mention of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet – “the play’s the thing”, no?

Peter J. Smith is professor of Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University.


The Private Life of William Shakespeare
By Lena Cowen Orlin
Oxford University Press, 448pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780192846303
Published 16 September 2021

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Bard gets lost in a riot of scenery

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