Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Life of Will

What's this? Two blogs in a week? Has he gone mad?

No. It's just that I'm so lucky. Stratford-upon-Avon is a thirty-minute bus ride from the top of my lane. It'd be even quicker if the bus didn't have to explore every village in between - but that wouldn't be quite so much fun.

So this afternoon I popped over to Stratford (by bus) to attend a talk about Shakespeare biographies. It was kind of an informal interview, as Professor Stanley Wells (Chair, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) asked David Bevington (University of Chicago) about his new book.

There have been quite a few biographies of Shakespeare published in recent years and I've read pretty well all of them. David Bevington has examined how all these biographies differ from one another.

His is rather a slim book.

The fact is, Shakespeare biographies are tiresome because they are almost all the same. Okay, you get Germaine Greer trying to convince us that Mrs Shakespeare was just brilliant (oh yeah? hardly a marriage made in heaven!), Rene Weis looking at the Shakespeare's neighbours in Stratford, Charlie Nicholl looking into Shakespeare's London lodgings on Silver Street, James Shapiro concentrating first on a year-in-the-life (1599) and now on all the theories about Shakespeare not really being Shakespeare.

(Actually, the best thing I heard at the talk was an argument against somebody else - e.g. the Earl of Oxford - having written the plays of Shakespeare; basically, if there had been such a conspiracy, Ben Jonson would not have been able to keep quiet about it. So there.)

Anyway, I did contemplate asking the esteemed gents up on their podium to what extent they felt that most Shakespeare biographers basically just say whatever somebody said before. And then illustrating it by pointing out that all biographers insist that Anne Whateley (the woman named in Will Shakespeare's first marriage licence, issued 27 November 1582) didn't exist, but that I've found a will at Worcester County Records Office which proves that she did exist.

I didn't say that out loud, though, probably because there might have been a commotion. How dare anybody introduce any controversial new facts into such a genteel symposium? Prof. Stanley Wells might have had a coronary, for crying out loud!

But oh, I would so love to have shouted out, "Ben Jonson murdered Shakespeare!"

And yeah, I do believe that's the truth. Don't know if I'll blog about it, though. Ought to try and write the book, really.

It's annoying, though. The two experts briefly skirted around the subject of Will Shakespeare's religion in such a way that they might as well have said, "Hmmnn - best not go there!" Which leaves me thinking -

What is the point of a Shakespeare biography? Is it meant to tell us anything about Shakespeare the man? Or is it an exercise in not rocking any boats?

Hilariously, Stanley Wells countered the suggestion that Shakespeare might have been Catholic by pointing out that so much of the documentation about him was connected with the reformed English ("Anglican") Church. But there wasn't any other Church available at the time. Catholicism had been banned. So Wells was basically using the Germaine Greer defence - an argument which is patently senseless and tantamount to saying that so-and-so was in the army and homosexuality isn't allowed in the army, so therefore so-and-so can't have been homosexual ... hardly watertight, as arguments go.

The curse of Shakespeare biography, it would seem, is not the lack of information (there's plenty) but rather the pressure to produce an 'orthodox', meaningless, fundamentally safe and pointless book about a man who was much more exciting (as were his works) than these people want to admit.

We need a revolution in Shakespearean biography, dammit!!! And maybe I'll get to throw the first petrol bomb, given half a chance.


  1. The first sensible comment on Shakespeare biography I've seen in a long time. Yes, we do need a revolution in Shakespeare biography, but it's already in progress and has been for a good long while. Check out my blog:

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    Thanks for dropping by, and thanks especially for your comment. Hope to see you again soon.

    Best wishes,