Shakespeare biography suffers from a peculiar historical deformation. The basic materials for a life of Shakespeare were gathered, from Stratford in the 18th century by Nicholas Rowe and Edmond Malone, and from London in the 19th century by John Payne Collier and J.O. Halliwell-Phillips. By the mid-19th century, Shakespeare life-writing had reached an impasse, since the largely legal and commercial evidence unearthed seemed radically disconnected from the spirit of the plays. Thereafter the Victorians preferred to seek the life in the works.
By the early 20th century, however, Shakespeare biographers had become singularly assertive in their insistence that the available evidence sufficiently completed our picture of the poet’s life. A confident positivist historicism dominated the biographies of Sir Sidney Lee and E.K. Chambers, and was popularized by Samuel Schoenbaum. A life of Shakespeare should consist of documentary facts; all undocumented traditions should be treated with suspicion or mistrust; and conjecture was forbidden. Shakespeare biography was declared a speculation-free zone.
This Gradgrindian approach for a time satisfied the needs of scholarship and criticism, but failed to answer, or even address, many of the problems endemic to Shakespeare biography: not so much the paucity, as the wrong kind of evidence; the total absence of any personal traces among the mundane historical data; the missing years; the apparent incongruities between a life dominated by small-town and city commercial and property dealing, and a body of work almost universally acknowledged as the pinnacle of human artistic and intellectual achievement.
It is now evident that that the supremely confident scholarship of Lee, Chambers and Schoenbaum was unconsciously shaped by a shadow: the “Shakespeare Authorship Problem” that began, from the middle of the 19th century, to question the capacity of “the Stratford Man” to produce those works, and to attribute them to Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or a host of other Renaissance illuminati. Mainstream Shakespeare biography generally declined to engage with these initiatives, treating them as at best eccentric, and at worst insane. But these maverick amateur intellectuals were raising questions of great interest and importance, questions avoided by the biographical establishment – which is why so many great minds (Hawthorne, Emerson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Freud) were interested, or even persuaded, by the anti-Stratfordian case. What is the relationship between art and the artist’s life? Is drama autobiographical? Why are there gaps and inconsistencies in the Shakespeare life-story? Why is it that unlike other comparable national poets, Dante or Cervantes or Goethe, Shakespeare’s life seems somehow not to fit with his works?
All this is changing. Now a “New Biography” of Shakespeare is at last beginning to emerge, one that is prepared to address all the questions and anxieties suppressed by the mainstream biographical tradition. New evidence from archaeology is reorienting our view of Shakespeare’s Stratford life. Scholars are beginning to chart the history of Shakespeare biography, and to disclose its unconscious ideological assumptions. Since Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, “conjecture” and “speculation” have acquired a new positive status. Critics are looking again at biographical fictions, and considering them as evidence alongside the facts.
The New Biography questions the dominance of the positivist paradigm; accepts that Shakespeare’s lives, though multiple and discontinuous, are yet facets of a single life; validates biographical speculation; and takes biographical fiction seriously. Above all, New Biography is prepared to confront the Shakespeare Authorship Problem, and to embrace all the mystery, inconsistency and incongruity that surround the figure of “the Stratford man”.
When I was a child, I would gesticulate wildly to make my silhouette dance in the sun. Look at that fool, people must have thought, chasing his own shadow. But it was the shadow that called the tune, and led the dance. It is time to confront Shakespeare’s shadow, in order to find out who he really was.
You can hear Graham Holderness speak about his new book on Wednesday 9 November at 1.00pm at The Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Tel. (01789) 204016 for more information.
Described by James Shapiro as ‘required reading for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s life or in how literary biography gets written’, and by Roger Lewis as ‘the best and most enjoyably imaginative book on Shakespeare since Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun’, Graham Holderness’s Nine Lives of William Shakespeare is published by Continuum Press.
You might like to order a copy from The Shakespeare Bookshop by sending an e-mail to email@example.com