The latest “Bookends” section at the back of the New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 29, 2014) presents the question: “When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s biography?” Two writers, Thomas Mallon and Adam Kirsch, give their separate answers, and Mr. Kirsch brings up the matter of Shakespeare, so first allow me to express some general ideas.
It may come as a surprise to some readers that, generally speaking, I don’t much care about the life of the person who wrote the latest novel I’ve enjoyed. I can think of several occasions in the past year when I’ve finished reading a novel and never even considered the author’s biography. It might have been interesting to learn about the lives of those writers, but it wasn’t important to me, much less necessary.
The above point notwithstanding, over the years I’ve loved reading about the event-filled lives of Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe and so on. Of course these particular authors wrote primarily out of their own experiences or observations; to one degree or another, they used their lives as foundations or starting points for works of imagination (as opposed to works of fantasy); and at times it has been extremely rewarding to compare and contrast the life and the work – Hemingway’s life in relation to The Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald’s painful life in relation to Tender is the Night, to cite two examples.
“At its best,” Mallon writes, “critical interpretation informed by biographical fact can deepen our emotional pleasure in a novel and our intellectual grasp of it as well … I can see example after appreciative example [in book reviews that he himself has written] of how a work of fiction ends up being illuminated by shining light on the author’s life.”
Then we come to Shakespeare, however, and I’m afraid Mr. Kirsch comes down hard on folks (like me) who question the traditional life story of the author. But first:
“There’s poetic justice, and possibly a lesson, in the fact that the greatest English writer is a biographical blank. Scholars continue to write books about the life of William Shakespeare, but eventually these boil down to studies of his work or histories of his times. The few scraps of evidence we possess about him are simply too scanty to make him come to life as an individual.”
Yes, sir, we agree! And what conclusions might we derive from this paucity of evidence?
“To some people, this absence is a scandal or irritant, and they try to fill the blank by insisting, irrationally, that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare but the Earl of Oxford, or someone else we can know more about.”
“But to most readers, I suspect, the unknowability of Shakespeare is a key ingredient in his greatness. ‘Others abide our question. Thou art free,’ wrote Matthew Arnold in his sonnet on the Bard, and this sense that Shakespeare stays one step ahead of us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do, fits perfectly with his biographical elusiveness.”
Irrationally? Okay, the issue is joined … so let’s see … where to begin?
First, we do not insist that “Shakespeare was not Shakespeare.” That would indeed be irrational. What we have concluded, after considerable effort to acquire information, is that “William Shakespeare” is a pen name, a pseudonym, and that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon did not write the great works.
Given that literary and dramatic works of that age were often published anonymously or under various names, such as when Edmund Spenser signed himself “Immerito” on the inside front-matter of The Shepherd’s Calendar in 1579, surely the idea of a pen name is not irrational. How about the poet who called himself “Ignoto”? Or the pamphleteer “Martin Marprelate”, signifying someone out to criticize the Anglican bishops or to “mar” the “prelates”? Surely then the idea of a pseudonym suggesting a warrior shaking the spear of his pen is not irrational. Surely, as well, it might even be rational to want to investigate.
It’s not that we think “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare”; we think “Shakespeare” was an individual other than the Warwickshire man handed down to us by tradition. What’s really irrational is the blind belief in that traditional life story, which itself is the quintessence of irrationality. That story, in human terms, is inexplicable. In effect, it’s a kind of religious belief and requires a miraculous “genius” who, for example, can “imagine” the complex geography, culture and legal system of Italy, down to specific details, without needing to have been there.
We can agree that the lives of some writers are more interesting than others. And that the lives of some writers are more connected to their literary or dramatic works than others. Might we also be able to agree about the basic laws of cause and effect? In this case, the works of “Shakespeare” amount to a multi-faceted, overwhelming effect without any discernible cause – a state of affairs that should alert all rational minds to the possibility of much more beneath the surface than meets the eye, that is, to the suspicion that there may well be a mighty cause equal to this singularly powerful effect.
When I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary film about the life of Samuel Clemens, author of the books attributed to Mark Twain, it became clear that this particular life was so tumultuous, so huge, so filled with extremes of emotional highs and lows, that knowing about it cannot but help us to better understand and appreciate his writings. After glimpsing the pain beneath the humor, the suffering behind the laughter, his words acquire even more power to make us laugh or cry.
Imagine, then, if we knew the name “Mark Twain” but had no idea that the amazing, massive life of Samuel Clemens was alive and breathing beneath it, like Moby Dick swimming and seething with that great whale’s uncommon force beneath the surface! Would it be “irrational” to entertain some glimmer of an idea that we are missing the existence of something of great vitality and even of great importance?
Near the end of his column Adam Kirsch casually states that Shakespeare “as a dramatist camouflaged even his literary personality.” He means, I think, that Shakespeare gave voice to so many varied and distinct characters that his own voice cannot be heard. Well, now, that may be like saying that Mark Twain covered up his own literary personality by creating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. And really, Mr. Kirsch, do you not suspect, as many scholars over the centuries have suspected, that Prince Hamlet’s speeches must contain some hint of the author’s own voice?
Frank Harris in The Man Shakespeare (1909) looked at the works of the great author from his own standpoint as a writer: “Without a single exception the commentators have all missed the man and the story; they have turned the poet into a tradesman, and the unimaginable tragedy of his life into the commonplace record of a successful tradesman’s career. Even to explain this astounding misadventure of the host of critics is a little difficult … Being without a guide, and having no clear idea of Shakespeare’s character, the critics created him in their own image…”
Harris undertook to find Shakespeare within his works “because he is worth it – the most complex and passionate personality in the world, whether of life or letters.” Shakespeare’s purpose “is surely the same as Montaigne’s, to reveal himself to us, and it would be hasty to decide that his skill is inferior … We are doing Shakespeare wrong by trying to believe that he hides himself behind his work … 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…”
Not taking the trouble, Harris went on, might have been due to the early nineteenth-century writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who “used all his powers to persuade men that Shakespeare was a sort of demi-god who was everyone and no one, a Proteus without individuality of his own. The theory has held the field for nearly a century, probably because it flatters our national vanity; for in itself it is fantastically absurd and leads to the most ridiculous conclusions…
“Like every other man of genius Shakespeare must have shown himself in his qualities and defects, in his preferences and prejudices; ‘a fallible human being,’ as stout Dr. [Samuel] Johnson knew, ‘will fail somewhere.’ Even if 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 …
“A great dramatist may not paint himself for us at any time in his career with all his faults and vices, but when he 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,’ thereby justifying the paradox that dramatic writing is merely a form of autobiography. 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.
“If a dozen lovers of Shakespeare were asked to name the most profound and most complex character in all his dramas it is probable that everyone without hesitation would answer Hamlet … Shakespeare included in himself Falstaff and Cleopatra, beside the author of the sonnets … But when this study is completed, it will be seen that, with many necessary limitations, Hamlet is indeed a revelation of some of the most characteristic traits of Shakespeare.”
One of the essential characteristics of the prince is revealed at the end, within his dying words, when he pours out his grief that history will fail to record what he did (or tried to do) and what happened to him. With his last breath he begs Horatio, his most trusted friend, to “report me and my cause aright, to the unsatisfied … O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown shall live behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.”
Isn’t it possible that the man behind “Shakespeare” was trying to tell us, through his portrait of Hamlet, that his real name was also “wounded” and destined to be “unknown” after his death? If such were the case, then the matter of Shakespearean authorship would be quite different in its nature than what is commonly perceived – a matter of even more immediate concern to the historian than to the literary critic, for we have now crossed into the realm of state censorship, suppression and even obliteration. Suddenly we are allowing ourselves to confront the possibility that the author himself is still calling out to us, across the divide of more than four centuries, to “report me and my cause aright.”
“Suppose, in brief,” writes Charlton Ogburn Jr. in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984), that the dramatist was, like Hamlet, of the highest rank at the Royal Court and “felt he had a mission to expose what was rotten in the state of England. Suppose the plays, if correctly attributed to a courtier close to the throne, would be seen as commentaries on affairs at Court by an insider, as sardonic and mischievous portrayals of highly placed figures and as intimate relations about the author himself unheard of on the part of a nobleman…
“Powerful interests would thus have a stake in keeping the author’s identity hushed up – if they could not shut him up to begin with: ‘Art made tongue-tied by authority,’ the poet bitterly remarks in the Sonnets … Here the question must arise as to what the author’s own feeling would have been about his necessary anonymity. When he cried in the Sonnets, ‘My name be buried where my body is,’ was he voluntarily renouncing the fame that could have been his or was he, sick at heart, acquiescing in a fate pronounced by others?”
Well, either way, we have been alerted to the dangerous but alluring possibility that indeed a Great White Whale lurks beneath the surface, ready at a moment’s notice to roar out of hiding and devour all our dearly held prior assumptions. The danger is real. We must be willing to commit one colossal, life-changing act of simultaneous disillusionment and revelation – somewhat, if you will, going through the experience of the child who finally dares to let go of the fantastical image of a bearded, red-suited man circling the globe on a flying sleigh and, simultaneously, to raise the curtain on a far more complicated (and perhaps less immediately edifying) human reality.
“I, once gone, to all the world must die,” the author wrote in Sonnet 81. Is it irrational to suspect that he knew very well his identity was going to be obliterated from the record? We either can accept it as a true statement, a true and painful cry from the great poet-dramatist himself, or we can sail on, oblivious to the unseen turbulence of life in the ocean depths beneath his text on the page.
You might say it was “irrational” to think the Earth might not be flat. And maybe it was “irrational” to think the Earth might not be the center of the Solar System. Time eventually tells. Meanwhile, history is written by the winners, and the man who was “Shakespeare” defiantly roars against Time the Historian in Sonnet 123:
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present, nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie…
But he promises to tell the truth and preserve it for generations to come:
This I do vow, and this shall ever be:
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.