Beleaguered perhaps by the rising enthusiasm for Oxford as Shakespeare, as our world of Shakespeare enthusiasts entered the 21st century, two academics have once more taken it upon themselves to provide us with William of Stratford scenarios, not so new as slightly refurbished. Curious to see how they deal with the thousand and one still unresolved anomalies that attend “the Shakespeare Problem,” (E.K. Chambers’s term for “problems of chronology”: when were the plays written?, and “problems of authenticity: who wrote them?) I began with the one from 2004, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.
After introducing us to Shakespeare’s accomplishments, how he
turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and of beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history. . . .
Greenblatt asks, “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” Alas, this is not a question he is capable of answering, for all that he has to offer is the same old dodge, tarted up with descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London, laced with facts and events that have no relevance, or very little, to how the plays got written, and so heavy with the kind of conjecture that must fill in where facts are scarce, it’s hard not to separate the wheat from the chaff, there being so very little wheat.
Those of us who read biographies to find out more about the famous persons who interest us should see immediately that, once again, this is far from what anyone would normally consider the biography of a real human being. Nor can we explain its failure to communicate Shakespeare’s life story as a natural loss of information from a long distant time, for why should we know more about Alexander the Great, who lived 2400 years ago, than we do Shakespeare, a mere 400, and at at time when letter writing was at a peak and the Stage a subject of intense public excitement and fascination? Why should we know so much more about Ben Jonson, a playwright from Shakespeare’s own time, than his far greater contemporary? And why isn’t the first question to be dealt with, now, after 400 years of silence, the reason for this strange and unexplained lack of information?
There’s no biography here, no story, no drama, no pathos, no real narrative, only a few anecdotes, many of them concocted by the Academy or its precursors to explain why a particular play was written, or what connection, if any, might be drawn to the life of someone about whom so very little was ever recorded, none of which shows any resemblance to the life of any real theatrical genius (Oscar Wilde? Leonard Bernstein? George Balanchine? George Gershwin?), that is, the only connection being the name that was purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men because they had to have something to put on the title pages of the plays when they finally began publishing them. As for the fact that the first two times it was used on a published play (after four years of anonymous publishing) it was hyphenated, well, “nothing here folks,” just another example of how nobody involved in creating the London Stage knew what the heck they were doing.
Professor of Humanities at Harvard and editor of the Norton Shakespeare, Greenblatt is considered a founder of the “new Historicism,” one of those bloody neologisms that have wreaked so much damage on the teaching, and study, and love and understanding, of English literature, ever since the universities in their wisdom began replacing reading and discussing the great works with language science (philolology, semiotics).
Whatever “the New Historicism” is supposed to convey it certainly doesn’t include much history. The realities of the period during which the plays were written, far from the ground out of which they grew, provide little more than a shifting and sketchy backdrop to the same old fairy tales: pleasant descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London; pastel acquatints; bathroom wallpaper. We might be watching one of those old travelogues from the 1930s and’40s with which Turner Classic Movies fills out their programming, “and now we say goodbye to old sixteenth-century London . . . .”
Since history provides no support at all for the Stratford biography, what Greenblatt relies on instead are centuries of academic conjecture: “All biographical studies of Shakespeare necessarily build on the assiduous, sometimes obsessive, archival research and speculation of many generations of scholars and writers.” After 400 years of consistent failure, wouldn’t you think the greatest need might be to go back to the beginning and start over? Not so. It seems “Historicism” means little more than recycling every cockamamie workaround that 400 years of dealing with the Great Anomaly (the lack of any real evidence, not only for Shakespeare, but for the broader phenomenon, the London Stage) has managed to produce, for Greenblatt has organized his attempt at a biography, not so that we can come to know the man who gave us the great plays––clearly that’s impossible, at least for someone associated with a university––but so, as he puts it, that readers can “find their way through the immense forest of critical resources”! Well who but a postdoc gives a hoot about “critical resources”? This is supposed to be a biography!
Says Greenblatt, “the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin.” (12). By abundant he means that thanks to centuries of archival digging by scholars like Malone, Halliwell-Philips, Schoenbaum and dozens of others, we know far more than we need to know or care to know about William’s exceedingly humdrum life in Stratford, while by thin he means anything that connects him to London or the Stage. Scholars have filled volumes with the Stratford records; the records that connect him to the Theater can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Says Greenblatt
After . . . sifting through most of the available traces, readers rarely feel closer to understanding how the playwright’s achievements came about. If anything, Shakespeare often seems a drabber, duller person, and the inward springs of his art seem more obscure than ever. Those springs would be difficult enough to glimpse if biographers could draw upon letters and diaries, contemporary memoires and interviews, books with revealing marginalia, notes and first drafts. Nothing of the kind survives. (13)
Survives? What evidence is there that originally there was something worth surviving? What this otherwise unexplainable absence suggests is that in fact there were never any letters, diaries, memoires, etc., that mention William as an actor or a playwright, for had there been, there would simply be NO GOOD REASON why the evidence failed to survive when so much else has survived.
Why on earth would no one have ever paid any attention to William of Stratford had he in fact been the author of these popular plays? Why so much attention to Jonson and nothing to Shakespeare? When does common sense kick in? Is it going to take another 200 years before this anomalous lack of evidence brings those who have the means to publish around to pondering for reasons why Jonson and not Shakespeare?
Greenblatt asks, “Where are [William’s] personal letters? Why have scholars ferreting for centuries failed to find the books he must have owned––or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in these books, as Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did?” How about because William couldn’t write, as evidenced by the six shaky signatures? How about because he couldn’t read? How about because he wasn’t Shakespeare?
The education problem
Says Greenblatt, “The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.” Modest education? What education? The only evidence that William could write so much as his own name (and even that not well or completely) are the six wobbly signatures on legal documents that are all that 200 years of digging has managed to unearth from the voluminous records that have been the focus of scholarly attention for the past 200 years. The only letter we know of that was ever written to William was never answered (or perhaps, never sent?).
The only possible support for the idea that he had any education at all is because, well, there was a grammar school in Stratford, and of course the great Shakespeare had to be educated, evidence or no evidence. Yes, the author had to be educated, but is the man who could not even spell his own name that author? Nor does “modest” accurately describe the kind of education revealed by everything attributed to Shakespeare, the depth of his knowledge of the Law, medicine, horticulture, astronomy, astrology, the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, of contemporary France and Italy, much of it foreign even to the most highly-educated of his contemporaries.
We are told what books Shakespeare “must have read.” Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that William had read anything. There are no books listed in his will. This and similar other difficult facts are “explained” by the academics as normal for the period. Many owners of books neglected to list them in their wills. Perhaps. But points like this simply add to an increasingly large set of facts that suggest, if they do not out and out prove, that William was illiterate, such as the fact that his entire family signed legal papers with an x, or that no member of his family had anything to say with regard to his fame as a playwright.
About his career as the author of the most popular plays in London, it seems his family and their neighbors knew nothing, for had they known there would certainly have been a record of it. The notion that his son-in-law Dr. Hall, who remarked in his diary on having treated their neighbor, the playwright Michael Drayton, might have mentioned his playwright father-in-law in notebooks that got burnt with the trash, is typical of how academics deal with the fact that Hall, who did mention his father-in-law elsewhere, never mentions his fantastic career. The three passing references to William’s presence in London that are all the record provides as evidence of a London career (nonpayment of taxes in 1595 and ’96, and a sojourn of indeterminate length in 1604 with a family of haberdashers) that these are sufficient to support his theatrical fame would, for anyone but an Oxbridge historicist, be far from sufficient. Nor is there any mention of valuable theater shares in his will.
Greenblatt’s version: nothing new
For those who haven’t read one of the orthodox Shakespeare biographies, Greenblatt faithfully follows his predecessors. Bored with family life in provincial Stratford (parents, siblings, wife and three children), Will takes off for London. Maybe hooking up with one of the London touring companies that pass through from time to time, the professional actors it seems do not hesitate to share with him the secrets of their trade, teaching him to sing, dance, fence, play an instrument, speak with a London accent, and memorize their repertory.
Or, another theory, maybe it wasn’t only boredom but trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy, that sends the youthful genius off to London, probably not for poaching rabbits as an earlier invention had it, maybe something having to do with religion, which, as Greenblatt mentions in passing, was something of a problem back then. This version has William, if not holding horses, then beginning by revising plays by an assortment of earlier (nameless) writers.
The University Wits
When it comes to the University Wits, Greenblatt willingly repeats a number of ancient falsehoods, among them that George Peele was a “reveler” who “died of the Pox,” something Peele’s biographer has proven to be a bad rap foisted on the early playwright after his death. Playing fast and loose with a subject that nobody really knows anything about, Greenblatt claims the Wits were “snobbish” towards the self-educated William, who prudently held himself aloof when he “saw that they drank for days and nights at a time and then, still half drunk, threw something together for the printer or the players.” He misses the joke in “Harvey’s” Second Letter, swallowing whole the tongue-in-cheek claim that their leading playwright, Robert Greene, died of an overdose of “pickled herring.” Is he unaware, or is he simply not interested in the fact that Pickle Herring was the name of a famous clown character, something like the Comedia’s Scaramouche? Was Greene’s death a joke? And who was Robert Greene anyway? Questions like these are to be avoided. Radioactive, they threaten the holy of holies, the Stratford biography.
Yet Greenblatt does see, as so many of his colleagues do not, how all (but one) of the Wits “quickly followed [Greene] to the grave”––even as he fails to acknowledge any connection between their disappearance in the early 1590s and the concurrent series of brutal attacks on Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, by the Privy Council under the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil. Whenever any real drama threatens the peaceful tenor of his narrative, he quickly cools it with placid adjectives. According to Greenblatt, for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, threatened by the loss of their means of livelihood in 1596, body blows like the loss of their theaters and the deaths of their patron and manager were nothing more than “disconcerting.”
William’s life in Shakespeare’s plays
Greenblatt’s attempts to locate events in William’s life in the plots of the plays are noteworthy for their utter irrelevance. His notion that William’s shotgun wedding was the source for Romeo and Juliet’s romance is little short of pathetic. His claim that the unhappy marriages in Shakespeare derive from William’s own marriage because they have “an odd, insistent ring of truth,” could be said of almost anyone. He sees Prospero’s concern for Miranda’s virtue an extension of William’s concern for his own daughters, though it’s questionable how well he could possibly have known them, having, according to Greenblatt, spent their growing and marrying years in far off London. As for William’s anger towards his son-in-law because his will shows a series of interlineations that cut him off, that hardly comports with Prospero’s intention to see Miranda happily married to the noble Ferdinand. Nor, for obvious reasons, does he extend this imagined connection with his daughters to the venomous daughters of King Lear.
Other views are equally conflicted. Marlowe was a brilliant dramatist, the inventor of blank verse and a threat to the Crown at the same time that he was a spy for the Crown, a counterfeiter, and a violent brawler. Similarly Shakespeare, Jonson’s “soul of the age, the delight, the wonder of our Stage,” was a play-patcher who cribbed his ideas from lesser writers and worked in partnership with sundry co-authors while showing “little or no interest” in the fate of his published works.
There are a fair number of out and out untruths. It seems that Stratford’s Forest of Arden, backdrop for so many scenes in Shakespeare, was in fact little more than a few patches of woods; having long since been encroached upon by the growth of small farms, so that all that remained of it by William’s time was the name. Nor was tanning John Shakspere’s trade, as Greenblatt states, because while tanning hides was tangential to wool dealing, it was a totally separate industry.
However limited by his precursors, Greenblatt is not entirely without logic when it comes to the plays themselves. He sees that Shakespeare had no reverence for the Church as an institution and that his “powerful prelates” are uniformly “disagreeable.” Suggesting that Shakespeare could not allow Falstaff to have a scene or two in Henry V because that play had to remain true to its purpose to rouse patriotic sentiment, is probably at least partly why the popular character was killed off in the second act. (Another might be because Will Kemp, doubtless the comedian who made Falstaff a household word, had left the Company by the time Henry V took its final form, and no one up to the part had yet been found to take his place.) He also grasps the purpose of the first seventeen sonnets and is aware that sonneteering was a “game of courtiers,” though he doesn’t try to explain how the humble Will managed to play the sophisticated game with such subtlety and skill.
How long, O Lord, how long?
When will someone of Greenblatt’s experience, intelligence and academic standing have the courage to admit the impossibility of proving that William of Stratford could possibly have written the Shakespeare canon? When will the Academy turn its attention to what should have been the central question from the start: What happened to the records that could tell us who did write it? There’s the story, folks. There’s the missing narrative, the drama, the history, the pathos. There’s where the truth lies, and where we’ll find it, and so much else, when we begin to look for it in the right places.