An Oxfordian Journal: Chapter 6: Shakespeare’s “Dramatic Remoteness From His Own Personality”

While reading biographies of Shakespeare to learn something about his creative process, I never figured the whole story might be wrong.

“A Life of William Shakespeare” by Joseph Quincy Adams (1923) is filled with solid information, and for that reason I recommend it, even though he creates a fictional biography of an imaginary poet-dramatist.

The books included  A Life of Shakespeare (1898) by Sir Sidney Lee … Shakespeare of London (1949) by Marchette Chute …  A Life of William Shakespeare (1923) by Joseph Quincy Adams [the best, I’d say] … and Shakespeare, A Biography (1963) by A. L. Rowse.

I read how we know more about Shakespeare than about any other writer of his time, but later I’d learn that this claim is untrue.  [Yes, we know about his non-writing activities in Stratford, but as a writer in London he’s no more than a printed name and we know nothing.  The trouble is that the biographers kept trying to stitch together the dreary stuff from Stratford with the chronology of the name — or pen name, I should say.]

The biographers claimed they restricted themselves to contemporary records, but later I’d learn that this, too, is not the case.  [The padding consisted of historical details about places and things, but these topics were entirely unrelated to the author as a person.  And so he “must have” or “might have” or “probably” or “undoubtedly” became involved with those impersonal details.]

Yet I never doubted that Will of Stratford was the true Shakespeare.   It never occurred to me to question the accepted story.  I never bothered to care about it, either.  I just kept reading biographies and experiencing a strange  emptiness.

“Shakespeare: His Mind and Art” (1875) by Edward Dowden

Then in another store I found a copy of Shakspere: His Mind and Art * (1875) by Edward Dowden, and boy did that title get me excited!  I’ve finally hit pay dirt, I thought.  I’m about to discover how Shakespeare’s mind worked and how he created his works of art!  

* Because of the Stratford spelling, it was always “Shakspere” and not “Shakespeare,” but, amid growing doubts about the authorship, such honesty was eventually abandoned.

What I found, however, was confusing and disconcerting.  The idea was that while Shakespeare may have had all kinds of turbulent thoughts and emotions inside him, he nonetheless never let himself get carried away by them.  So he stood apart from his great tragic characters in Othello and King Lear and Macbeth and Hamlet, even while channeling his turbulence into them.  Then he left London and returned to Stratford and put all his affairs in order.  I pictured him on his porch, in a rocker, calm and serene and satisfied in his peaceful retirement.

(I’d learn later that the truth was quite the opposite!)

This image of the retired poet-dramatist reminded me of my own beloved grandfather, a mild-mannered accountant, who always had his affairs in order.  And I think what bothered me was that Dowden’s portrait was not, in my experience, that of an artist.  It was not my idea of what the creator of Prince Hamlet must have been like as a person.

Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

Most of the great writers I admired had experienced the turbulence — Eugene O’Neil or Scott Fitzgerald or Edward Albee and so on.  Only Shakespeare, the greatest, could completely separate his life and work.

“The man actually discoverable behind the plays was a man tempted to passionate extremes, but of strenuous will,” Dowden wrote, “and whose highest self pronounced in favor of sanity.  Therefore he resolved that he would set to rights his material life, and he did so.  And again he resolved that he would bring into harmony with the highest facts and laws of the world his spiritual being.”

And when he retired to Stratford he attained “self-mastery” that was “large, luminous, and calm.”

Dowden believed Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens as one of his last works.  When the play opens Timon is a wealthy young nobleman who has proved to be a generous friend, a considerate master, a lavish patron of the arts and an extravagant entertainer – a portrait, I’d eventually learn, that exactly fits the young nobleman Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  When Timon’s creditors come after him (as Oxford’s creditors came after him) and his friends refuse to help him, he becomes enraged and embittered (as Oxford became).

Dowden made a mighty effort to explain why Shakespeare would write such a play in the first place — and, too, why he would do so near the very end of his labors:

“In the character of Timon, Shakspere gained dramatic remoteness from his own personality.”  [My emphasis]

Can you imagine what I felt when reading that statement?

By writing that play, Dowden declared, Shakespeare “attained self-possession, and could transfer himself with real disinterestedness into the person of the young Athenian favorite of fortune.” [My italics]

This was fascinating to me.  I may not have understood it, but I believed it!  And now the pay dirt:

“This, in more than one instance, was Shakespeare’s method – having discovered some single central point of sympathy between his chief character and his past or present self, to secure freedom from all mere lyrical intensity by studying that one common element under conditions remote from those which had ever been proper or peculiar to himself.”  [My emphasis]

To illustrate his theme, Dowden offered the following information:  “In 1604, when he was a wealthy man, William Shakespeare brought an action against Philip Rogers, in the Court of Stratford, for 1 pound, 15 shillings and 10d, being the price of malt sold and delivered to him at different times.”

This legal action to collect little more than a pound demonstrates that he was “practical, positive, and alive to material interests.”  [That’s one way to put it.]  Moreover, Dowden continued, “About the same time that he brought his action against Philip Rogers for the price of malt, the poet was engaged upon his Othello and his Lear.”

Really?  I tried to imagine it.  Well … such was Edward Dowden’s attempt in 1875 to bridge the vast gap between the un-Lear-like existence of the Stratford man with the cries of pain and suffering expressed so powerfully and realistically by “William Shakespeare.”

I’ll tell a little more about what I read in those biographies back in 1987, before moving on.

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