“Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” – Historic Conference at the Folger Library – Does it Signal that the Current Paradigm is in Trouble?

Dozens of Shakespeare scholars and students will be in Washington, D.C., at the Folger Shakespeare Library this week for a two-day series of lectures that may come to be seen as truly historic. The topic of the conference, after all, is Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography

Did we know that the orthodox community has acknowledged a “problem” in the first place? The Folger’s online blurb calls the conference a “rigorous investigation of the multiple – and conflicted – roles biography plays in the reception of Shakespeare today.”

The Folger Shakespeare Library - Washington, D.C.

The Folger Shakespeare Library – Washington, D.C.

Some one hundred and forty persons have reserved seats to attend the lectures, to be held inside the Folger’s Tudor-style theater; and at this point enrollments are closed. The collaborative research conference, funded by the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), will begin Thursday evening with Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York, delivering Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture 2014, entitled Shakespeare, Biography and Anti-Biography.

According to the overview of his talk, “The biography of Shakespeare is a paradox. Is he our greatest author precisely because we know so little about him, and his life remains a mystery? Shakespeare is at once a figure of cultural saturation and an indefinable enigma,” the overview continues. “We see him everywhere, yet we keep on looking for more … Do we feel our lack of knowledge so painfully because it relates to a figure we care so much about?”

Folger Theatre

Folger Theatre

Professor Cummings will discuss “the problem of writing the life of Shakespeare in terms of documentary history and its haunting sense of missing links,” suggesting that perhaps “the reading of a writer creates a life of its own, somewhere between writer and reader, in the mystery that constitutes the act of literature.”

This may be an unspoken acknowledgment that life inside the paradigm of tradition is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. My only comment right now is that, in my view, escaping this purgatory will require its inhabitants to step outside the current paradigm. Only then will it be possible to look around to see what’s in the new landscape.

A conference schedule posted in December (but which I can no longer find at the Folger website) states that the goal is to pursue “a fresh critical evaluation of the aims and methods of literary biography.” An acknowledged problem is that “textual analysis” within the academic establishment “often denies biography and explanatory force, while popular conceptions of Shakespeare look to biography precisely for insight into the works. In the standoff, the genre of literary biography is lost as a subject of serious inquiry.”

Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere
17th Earl of Oxford

Here we might discern some pressure from those of us who view Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author – pressure to find new ways of using the Stratford paradigm to gain explanations and insights. We can predict some interesting attempts in the coming years to achieve such results – for example, attempts to bring in more writers with whom Shakespeare allegedly “collaborated” on his plays. When the real-life stories of these writers are added to the wholly inadequate life of William Shaksper, think of the possibilities for more and different “traditional” biography!

“A cadre of influential scholars, many of whom have written biographies of Shakespeare, will focus discussion” on topics such as:

• The distinctions between authorship and agency
• The interpretations of documentary evidence
• The impact of methods of dating texts on an understanding of Shakespeare’s life
• The broadened context for that life of a more robust understanding of theatrical activity
• The possibility that biography is itself a form of historical fiction

All this is certainly interesting for anyone involved in the authorship question, and we owe thanks to the NEH and the Folger Shakespeare Library for holding the conference. In my view, however, these lectures signal that the current biographical paradigm is beginning to fall apart – whether or not the participants realize or acknowledge it.

Within the current paradigm there are too many anomalies – things that don’t make sense — too many holes. I believe that, without anyone saying it aloud, we are moving away from the orthodox view and into a turbulent but healthy (and long overdue) middle period of chaos, argument, confusion and shifting views — to continue for probably a long time until a new paradigm is finally adopted.

On Friday there will be talks on:

The Genre of Literary Biography
(Lawrence Goldman, Professor of History at the University of Oxford; and Ian Donaldson, Emeritus Professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne)
The History of Biographies of Shakespeare
(Jack Lynch, Acting Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University; and Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theatre and English at Yale University)

Graham Holderness

Graham Holderness

Rethinking the Documentary Evidence
(Graham Holderness, Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, speaking on “Everyone and No-one: Fact, Tradition, and Invention in Shakespeare Biography”; and Lena Crown Orlin, Professor of English at Georgetown University)

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt

On Saturday there will be talks on:

Biography, Theater, History
(Lois Potter, Emerita Ned B. Allen Professor of English at the University of Delaware; and Margeta de Grazia, Emerita Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania)
Who Are We Looking For? (Portraiture)
(Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Sixteenth Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery; and Julia Reinhard Lupton, Professor of English and Interim Chair at the University of California, Irvine)
What Do We Expect of the Author?
(John Drakakis, Professor of Literature and Language at the University of Stirling; and William H. Sherman, Professor of English at the University of York)

Katherine Duncan-Jones

Katherine Duncan-Jones

Where Are We Now?
(Katherine Duncan-Jones, Professor of English at the University of Oxford, with a talk entitled “Full Circle: Biography and Literature”; and Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, and author of Will in the World (2004), whose topic is “Stories about the Dead”)

I’ll report back any answers to “Where are we now?”

But just to have the question put forth in this setting is, as mentioned, truly historic.

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