Shakespeare Revealed

By René Weis

In Internet circles reference is sometimes made to “Godwin’s Law,” a concept floated by cultural commentator Mike Godwin that holds that the longer any online discussion goes on the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler increases. It is considered bad form to play the Nazi card in such discussions, as one corollary of the Law is that once such a comparison is made the discussion is over and debate at an end.

A similar sort of Law might be posited for Shakespearean biographies and the probability of finding a reference to the bard’s homosexuality. For the record, in René Weis’s Shakespeare Revealed it gets duly trotted out on page 4 as part of a reference to Richard II as Shakespeare’s “gay king.” Apparently, “as with Richard so there are questions marks hanging over Shakespeare’s sexuality.” And, as per Godwin’s Law, at this point one’s attention begins to drift.

Of course we don’t know if Shakespeare was, as the fashion has it today, “gay.” (Richard, by the way, almost certainly wasn’t, and he isn’t in the play.) In fact we know very little about the Bard, even with regard to the objective facts of his life. This absence of hard evidence has done nothing to slow down the Shakespeare biography industry, which continues to churn out speculative life studies at an astonishing rate. Weis, however, claims to be heading off in a new direction:

the links between Shakespeare’s life and his works may be far closer than is commonly assumed. This book aims to show just how deep these connections really are, and to demonstrate that the plays and poems contain important clues not only to Shakespeare’s inner life but also about real, tangible, external events.

This, from the Prologue, is a forbidding warning. Yes, the link between Shakespeare’s life and his works may be closer than is commonly assumed. Though it may not be. And how close a link is commonly assumed anyway? What is the objective value of these “important clues”? In his analysis of Hamlet – naturally one of the most clue-laden of texts in the canon (though given the basic premise, why shouldn’t Pericles tell us as much?) – Weis writes that the “play is full of elusive and imprecise clues about the relationship between Shakespeare and his family and other aspects of his life.” And yet some of these elusive and imprecise clues are no more than indirect “echoes” of “real, tangible, external events” (a ghastly expression). Is an echo a clue? Apparently it depends upon the ear of the listener.

Shakespeare was no more King of England than he was Prince of Denmark, a middle-aged black man consumed by love and jealousy and rendered vulnerable to treachery by his race, or a Jewish financier seeking revenge on Christians for putting him out of business or spitting on him. The echoes that bounce across the boundary between life and art are much subtler, but are there to be caught by those who listen.

Subtle and elusive as the connections may be, they provide the essential textual key (Keats’s “allegory”) for understanding Shakespeare’s life. Which should come as no surprise. The book’s aim to reveal Shakespeare through the lens of his work is, in fact, wholly unoriginal. Given the lack of biographical data already adverted to, such an approach is both inevitable and, by now, routine. According to Anthony Holden, author of the last Shakespeare bio I reviewed, the life of Shakespeare “is there for all to see, in and between every line he ever wrote.” In clues. And echoes. Weis: “Beneath Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters the drum that is the private self beats with percussive ardour.”

There is nothing wrong, in theory, with coming at Shakespeare’s life through his work. It’s just that everything that is said has to be heavily qualified (some conclusions are “quite possible,” some connections “should not be ignored,” some events “must surely” have occurred), and the results are rarely very interesting anyway.

Isabella in Measure for Measure is the only major character so-named in any of Shakespeare’s plays, and it is not her name in the play’s source. He might have plucked it from nowhere in particular – or he might have found it in his own family’s history. A man as keen as Shakespeare on English history and his own family [?] may well have been aware that towards the end of the fifteenth century at Wroxall Abbey, a few miles to the north of Stratford, there had been a prioress by the name of Dame Isabella Shakespeare; another sub-prioress of the same abbey, one Dame Joan Shakespeare, died in 1571, when he was seven years old.

He might have . . . or he might have . . . and he may well have . . . finally leads us to the conclusion that there may be some absolutely meaningless connection between the name Isabella in Measure for Measure and the name of an abbess in the neighbourhood of Stratford some hundred years before Shakespeare wrote his play. But who cares?

Or, to move from an obviously trivial matter to something of more consequence, at least to biographers, there is the question of whether Shakespeare was Catholic. This is the scab that recent Shakespearean scholars can’t stop picking, despite the fact that “Whether William Shakespeare did indeed feel attracted to one faith rather than the other is impossible to determine.”

It is one of the mysteries of the Shakespeare story that it cannot be determined where he stood on the greatest national issue of the day, the Catholic question. It is not that there are no clues; there are plenty, but they pull in opposite directions.

Oh, those echoing clues, literally bouncing back and forth now! What do they mean?

More to the point, what would they mean if they all pulled in the same direction? What would that tell us about Shakespeare? This kind of label-chasing doesn’t seem to me to lead anywhere except more worrying of the bleeding details. And who in the world can read such stuff as this:

Cottom’s move to Shakespeare’s school in 1579 coincided with the mission to England being planned by the Jesuit William Allen, who ran the English College at Douai, and by Robert Parsons, the English Penitentiary at Rome. Not much later Parsons secured a blessing for the mission from the General of the Society of Jesus, Claudio Acquaviva. Campion landed in England on 24 June 1580 and was put up at Sir William Catesby’s house Bushwood in Lapworth, ten miles or so from Stratford; Robert Parsons was also living in the Midlands at this time. Thomas Cottom, younger brother of the newly appointed Stratford schoolmaster, was a Jesuit, and a companion of Edmund Campion. When he was arrested in June 1580 Thomas Cottom was carrying a secret letter addressed to John Debdale of Shottery. It seems inconceivable that he should not have been hoping to meet his brother John at the King’s New School, since his mission to Shottery took him to within less than a mile of Church Street. Thus was the King’s New School linked to the heart of the Catholic resistance.

Thus? Thus Shakespeare is revealed?

Review first published September 4, 2007.