“The Man Shakespeare and His Tragic Life-Story” (1909) by Frank Harris, Who Knew that the Great Author Put Himself in All His Work

Many of us who believe that “Shakespeare” was a pen name of the Earl of Oxford cannot help but enjoy dipping into The Man Shakespeare and His Tragic Life-Story (1909) by Frank Harris (1856-1931) – whose autobiographical work My Life and Loves was banned in several countries because of its sexual explicitness.  Frank Harris lived as far from the ivory tower as you can get; he approached Shakespeare’s character and life from the vantage point of what he absorbed, mostly in his heart, in his gut, from what he found in the works themselves.  [The full text of The Man Shakespeare can be found at The Project Gutenberg]

Frank Harris in 1927

Frank Harris in 1927

Harris viewed Shakespeare as “the most complex and passionate personality in the world, whether of life or letters.”  He saw the traditional Shakespeare as an “unknown god” and yet, paradoxically, also as a writer whose purpose is “to reveal himself to us.”

“We are doing Shakespeare wrong by trying to believe that he hides himself behind his work,” Harris wrote, adding, “Sincerity is the birthmark of genius, and we can be sure that Shakespeare has depicted himself for us with singular fidelity; we can see him in his works, if we will take the trouble.”

Harris scoffed at Coleridge, blaming him for the “confusion and contradictions” surrounding the image of Shakespeare.   That famous critic “was a hero-worshipper by nature and carried reverence to lyric heights.” Coleridge “used all his powers to persuade men that Shakespeare was ‘the myriad-minded man’ – a sort of demi-god who was every one and no one” – a theory that has held the field to this day!

But Frank Harris sought to bring the great author back to earth:

“Even had Shakespeare tried to hide himself in his work, he could not have succeeded … The time for random assertion about Shakespeare and unlimited eulogy of him has passed away forever … When a great dramatist goes deepest into human nature, we may be sure that self-knowledge is his guide; as Hamlet said, ‘To know a man well, were to know himself” (oneself) … We may take then as a guide this first criterion that, in his masterpiece of psychology, the dramatist will reveal most of his own nature…

“But even if it be admitted that Hamlet is the most complex and profound of Shakespeare’s creations, and therefore probably the character in which Shakespeare revealed most of himself, the question of degree still remains to be determined.  Is it possible to show certainly that even the broad outlines of Hamlet’s character are those of the master-poet?”

His answer was a resounding yes.  Hamlet, for Frank Harris, “is indeed a revelation of some of the most characteristic traits of Shakespeare.”  Romeo, Jacques, the Bastard, Falstaff, Timon, Antony, Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth – these and many, many more are all versions of the same voice, the same self-portrait, but in different contexts.   Harris sees, through the characters in the plays, a growth and change, a great violent struggle against the pains and sufferings of life, a tragic life story – and so he arrives at a kind of bafflement in the face of the Myth of Tradition that the great author simply retired and went home to his rocker on the porch:

“It is incredible to me that Shakespeare should leave London at forty-seven or forty-eight years of age, in good health, and retire to Stratford to live as a ‘prosperous country gentleman’!  What had Stratford to offer Shakespeare – village Stratford with a midden [dunghill or refuse heap] in the chief street and the charms of the village usurer’s companionship tempered by the ministrations of a wandering tub-thumper? … There is abudant evidence … to prove that the storm which wrecked Shakespeare’s life had not blown itself out … “

In the end, Harris appears to be as mystified as ever to explain the Shakespeare he discerns within the boundaries of the traditional story.  He knows that the myth cannot work.  He knows, intuitively, that there is an authorship question.  In the end, he was still looking for the Prince of Denmark.

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