Forgive the dead air around here lately; April really kind of was the cruelest in terms of having time to write, but here I am back again.
It’s sweet and kind of funny when friends who know I’m what Michael Dirda rather brilliantly called a “professional Elizabethan,” friends who are not professional Elizabethans themselves, recommend a book about Shakespeare. The recommendation comes almost flirtatiously, enthusiastic but hesitant, couched in terms of, “Well, you probably already know all this stuff, but I liked it…” In all likelihood, I probably don’t, and sometimes a book intended for the nonspecialist reader is the best place to get a gist to take back to more scholarly reading. There are, of course, some Shakespeareans who might look down their noses at such a recommendation. For ease of use over wine and cheese at conferences or in seminars, I’ve developed a personal classification system for Shakespeare scholars. They can be generally organized into two categories: those who like the Romeo and Juliet movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, and those who don’t. (Don’t for a minute think this division has anything to do with age – I’ve met more young bardolators who turn up their nose at this film than older.) The latter are probably less flexible in their appreciation of the Immortal Bard of Avon (just typing that phrase makes me narcoleptic), possessed of a Malvolian stodginess – the kind of Shakespearean who might be inclined to poo-poo a book on the Great Man intended for little people. I like to think I’m of the former camp – at the very least I happen to think Baz Luhrmann’s movie a frenetic, clever, moving interpretation of a frenetic, clever, moving play. I also like to think of Shakespeare as one of the few genuinely democratic writers in English, both popular and challenging, the maker of, amidst much else, some of the most elegant fart jokes in the language. I would be remiss to ignore a book about Shakespeare written for the widest variety of people when his work, too, was written to appeal to anyone willing to pay for a ticket.
And so I found myself reading (listening to, actually, the audiobook read by Bryson himself) Shakespeare – The World as Stage after having it recommended to me in the manner described above by two friends, a geologist and an animal rights activist. I read Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe a few years ago – somewhere in the hinterlands in Italy, appropriately enough – and enjoyed his amiable humor. I’m tempted to describe it as “like Twain without being mean,” but since that’s impossible I’ll let it pass. Probably the best adjective for Bryson’s wit is “winsome,” which I intend as a compliment, though it could be used easily by friend or enemy alike. There are occasional glimpses of that wit here, but, though it has the light step of his travel writing, Shakespeare is written in a different vein. Bryson’s project is to stick closely to the facts of Shakespeare’s life with limited deviations into speculation or wishful thinking.There is little strictly documentary evidence about Shakespeare’s life, which Bryson rightly points out is true of any of Shakespeare’s non-aristocratic contemporaries as well. The biographer doesn’t have much to work with, but one of the pleasures of reading Shakespeare biographies is the way different writers accentuate different parts of the limited record. James Shapiro’s 1599 unsurprisingly focuses intently on one crucial year in Shakespeare’s life, and on the wider cultural factors that seem to have influenced the writing of Hamlet, As You Like It and two other plays that year. Peter Ackroyd’s portentously-titled Shakespeare – The Biography is very good on his early life, going into wonderful detail about the school curriculum Shakespeare would have studied and evidence in the plays of his memory for the matériel of the glover’s trade (his father’s) and of a childhood spent amongst the flora and fauna of the Midlands countryside. Bryson weights the ages of Shakespeare’s life evenly, and is at his best when gently probing the speculations biographers and scholars have come up with to fill in the many gaps in the documentary record. Ackroyd hints broadly that he of the camp that think Shakespeare worked, during the “Lost Years” of his youth before he showed up in London, at the manor of the Catholic Hoghton family in Lancashire, possibly as a player or teacher. Though a “Shakeshafte” is on the Hoghtons’ employment records during this period, Bryson rightly shows this to be something of a logical, and wishful, leap. Bryson avoids Ackroyd’s stately progress, lightly moving through his own meticulous reading and briefly interviewing a few carefully-chosen and distinctly unspeculative experts along the way. His quick but thorough job makes this a good introduction to Shakespeare’s life without any of the vagaries or fripperies of which scholars (including myself) are fond. The chapter towards the end on the Authorship Question – that is, whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or, indeed, existed – is a particularly effective take-down of this ridiculous non-argument, the Shakespearean equivalent of the Birther movement (for a detailed history of the Authorship Question and the eccentrics who have kept it alive, see Shapiro’s fair-minded Contested Will).
My few quibbles with Bryson’s Shakespeare are pretty technical. His treatment of variations in spelling in early modern English – Shakespeare’s signature survives in six places, spelt six different ways – never moves past the “gee whiz, weren’t those Renaissance folks silly?” phase that, it should be said, can clog up general history books. The unspeculative facts are, the relationship between oral and written language, and the conception of how words should be written, was very different in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Shakespeare didn’t spell his name several different ways out of caprice or laziness; he would have thought differently than we do about how his name should be written. Jonathan Hope’s introduction to Shakespeare and Language (2004) and David Crystal’s book Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (2008) both address this idea with the fullness it deserves in terms anyone interested in language (so, most people reading books about Shakespeare) will understand. Also, while we get some colorful episodes in the history of Shakespeare scholarship – from the brilliant, problematic work of Edmond Malone to the crank eccentricities of Delia Bacon (the Orly Taitz of the Authorship Question) – we get very little idea of what contemporary Shakespeare scholarship looks like. Interviews of eminent scholars like Stanley Wells and Tarnya Cooper are very general, and those of contemporary scholars who shape how we see Shakespeare now (Leah Marcus, Tiffany Stern, Peter Stallybrass, Bruce Smith) are, well, nonexistent. Bryson, whose good-natured clarity allowed him to write a book about the history of science called A Short History of Nearly Everything, surely could have dipped into contemporary Shakespeare studies without impelling the general reader to hurl the book across the room. Bruce Smith’s work on the aural environment of the Globe (The Acoustic World of Early Modern England) – about how contemporary audiences would have actually heard and experienced Shakespeare’s work – would have particularly engaged with the Bryson’s excellent subtitle, “The World as Stage.” As it is, the promise of the subtitle is restricted to the shapeliness of the phrase itself.
I admire Bryson’s painstaking effort – in Gradgrind’s phrase from Hard Times – to stick to “facts, sir, nothing but facts.” He is an affable guide to Shakespeare’s life and times, one who the general or professional Elizabethan audience can follow without wondering what interpretive axes are being ground behind the scenes. Bryson pokes fun at the speculations of foolishly fond Shakespeareans with good reason. That said, speculation is certainly speculation, but some speculation is more equal than others. The best work of Shakespeare biography I’ve read, Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger (recently ranked by the professional Elizabethan and Columbia professor James Shapiro, mentioned above, in a list of his favorite Shakespeare biographies) is built entirely around one document: Shakespeare’s testimony in a 1612 court case about an inheritance involving members of a family from whom he rented a room at the turn of the seventeenth century. Nicholl has a rare feel, as a biographer and a student of the early modern period, for the nuances that are revealed by carefully combing through material evidence, for what can be gleaned by, say, thinking about how Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom of his sworn statement might reveal his frame of mind that day. Nicholl traces the lives of the Mountjoy family, who knew Shakespeare as the middle-aged actor upstairs, through court records of items purchased from their business (they made “tires,” elaborate headdresses worn by actors and aristocratic women, like this one worn by Elizabeth I) to the notebooks of the astrologer and physician Simon Forman to legal proceedings against George Wilkins, a repeat-offending brothel-keeper who, shockingly, co-wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre with Shakespeare. (This isn’t as shocking when you read Wilkins’ own, perfectly good play The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, and remember the vivid depiction of a brothel in Pericles.)
The documentary trail for most early modern individuals can be fallow ground, but an imaginative approach to the wider culture can make Shakespearean biography into something altogether more rich and strange. Bryson rightly dismisses baseless or wishful speculation as unhelpful; as much as some (myself included) may want Aemelia Lanyer, a brilliant half-Italian poet and court musician’s daughter, to be the Dark Lady of the sonnets, it is unlikely an actual identity will ever be known or is even really necessary. But speculation grounded in an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and times, girded by imaginative instinct, can be the most useful and stimulating way to color the blanks of Shakespeare’s life.
(Many thanks to Simon and Laura (not that one, the other one – you know who you are) for their recommendations to read this book. This is my somewhat lengthy way of saying thanks!)