By Anthony Holden
The most important line in Anthony Holden’s new biography of William Shakespeare comes on the third page. In defending his decision to write a biography of such a well-known yet mysterious figure he rejects the idea that we don’t have a lot of evidence relating to Shakespeare’s life. This, he informs us, is only a “myth” and “a popular delusion.” In fact, as he goes on to say, Shakespeare’s life is “documented in more detail than that of any writer of his age, except to some degree Ben Jonson.”
Holden, even though he is repeating what has become almost a cliché in some circles, is totally wrong. The “popular delusion” is no delusion at all. In truth, we know very little about Shakespeare’s life. Even granting Holden his second point (but do we really know more about Shakespeare than we do about Bacon? About Sidney?), we have to be honest about the fact that the gaps in the record are deep and wide.
We know that Shakespeare was born in Stratford in 1564 (there is still some question about the exact date), that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and that he wound up in London by 1592, at which time he had some reputation as a playwright. After that things get a little clearer, but we still don’t know exactly what plays or parts of plays he wrote, or in what order he wrote them. Nor do we know anything about his relationship with his wife or whether he took any lovers. While a number of documents survive with Shakespeare’s name on them (many of them introduced in facsimile here), we don’t have any of his letters, much less a journal or record of his table-talk.
What we do have are the plays. Do they count as biographical evidence? Holden answers Yes. The life of Shakespeare “is there for all to see, in and between every line he ever wrote.” On this principle it becomes “impossible to believe” that the man who wrote Othello “had not himself experienced the full anguish of sexual jealousy.” Was he cuckolding his London landlord then? It is a “passing thought.” In a similar vein Holden sees the bard’s source for Cleopatra in an Oxford tavern-keeper he may have had an affair – and an illegitimate child – with.
Some of this might seem a stretch, but the absence of hard facts makes it very difficult to tell any other kind of story. For a biographer to make Shakespeare’s life into something more than just a brief sketch with a few names and dates some kind of guesswork has to take place. And once things get going . . .
There is danger in the air right from the start, when Holden tells us how, beside the parish church in Stratford, there stood “a charnel-house crammed to overflowing with the bones of the dug-up dead” that had a profound effect on young William’s imagination. Not only does the charnel-house help to explain Macbeth’s horror at Banquo’s ghost, it also sheds light on Shakespeare’s epitaph, where he curses any one who would try and move his bones.
This isn’t just historical speculation, it’s historical pop psychology. It has the effect of making Shakespeare seem more like a character in a novel, as well as tying together the narrative, but it is not based on anything we know. It may well be – indeed it is more than likely – that young William was totally indifferent to the neighbourhood bone pile.
The art of writing historical biography these days seems mostly to lie in the ability to move from what is “likely,” “reasonable,” and “most convincing” to what is “clear,” “obvious,” and “certain” without anyone noticing what you are about. In order to show your own critical standards and acumen you have to shoot down the conjectures of previous scholars as “mere fancy” and “pure speculation,” without drawing attention to the fact that your own hypotheses are based on nothing more substantial.
Thus we can all cheer as Holden pooh-poohs the notion that Shakespeare was gay, that W. H. was somebody we should know about, or that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare at all. But at the same time we are supposed to entertain possibilities that are equally remote.
Holden’s idee fixe, for example, is his notion that Shakespeare was a closet, and then a lapsed Catholic. Again the evidence is vague. Shakespeare’s father appears to have kept his Catholic faith and it is possible that Shakespeare himself had a number of recusant friends. But this is the most we can say. It is not very likely that “the papist Shakespeare deliberately caricatured the Protestant martyr Oldcastle” in the character of Falstaff, or that he was in any personal danger over the Gunpowder Plot (a Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament).
We should be wary of biographers who feel a need to fill in the blanks. Keats described Shakespeare as a man who possessed “Negative Capability” – the quality of being satisfied with uncertainty and doubt without any irritable reaching after fact. Those who have negative capability can appreciate beauty without being driven to penetrate its mystery. In the case of Shakespeare we should be content in our half knowledge.
Review first published March 25, 2000.