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Bad Will Hunting

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The problem here is foundational. Ackroyd's careful social history of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England can tell us much of what makes Shakespeare different from us today, but it can tell us nothing of what made Shakespeare different from his contemporaries. That distinction lies in the slippery, glittering realm of his imagination, which two further new studies use to attach the man to his works. Shadowplay by Clare Asquith and "Shakespeare" by Another Name by Mark Anderson both attempt to ascribe the sources of Shakespeare's creativity to his biography. "I have that within which passeth show," Hamlet tells his mother. For both of these scholars, the true biography is hidden, like the Da Vinci Code, within the plays.

About the Author

Daniel Swift
Daniel Swift has written for Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement.

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Shakespeare's England was, as Asquith compellingly sketches it, a society embroiled in violence and religious upheaval. England was a traditionally Catholic society, but from the early 1500s the convulsions of the Reformation across Europe were exacerbated in England by the rapid deaths of three English monarchs. In 1558 Queen Elizabeth was crowned and imposed upon her countrymen a new and state-sponsored national religion that abandoned the Catholic past in favor of Protestant doctrine. Traditional wall paintings in churches were whitewashed, and the grand monuments of Catholic England were defaced; during Shakespeare's childhood, popular uprisings in the north and west of England were violently quelled by government armies. It is here, "in the repressive years following the Reformation, years of censorship and propaganda," that Asquith finds the origins and inspiration of Shakespeare's imagination.

Childhood in a culture of public violence and fear is a fertile incubator for any artist, but this is only a starting point for Asquith. Shakespeare "was driven to write by a different fear," she writes, "the growing concern, shared by many contemporaries, that the true history of the age would never be told." To preserve this history, Asquith argues, Shakespeare developed what she calls a "hologram technique"--a fancy phrase for nothing more than simple allegory. The plays and poems are, she insists, written in "coded language" whereby characters embody abstract principles like "England's despoiled soul," or political figures like the Queen. In Twelfth Night, for example, Asquith finds a bonanza of so-called holograms: In this supermarket stocked with personifications are "figures representing Rome, Ireland, the Pope, Philip II [the King of Spain] and Robert Persons [a well-known Jesuit missionary]."

This is not literary criticism but algebra, using formulas and equations to crack a code whose very existence becomes increasingly farfetched as Asquith goes on. King Lear, she argues, was written to beg King James's sympathy for his disenfranchised Catholic subjects, and she notes the record of a court performance as evidence. The problem is that this simply doesn't come close to accounting for the play: King Lear is a searing, terrifying nightmare of aging and family love, a heartbroken hymn of pain, but for Asquith it is a slice of propaganda.

Such an argument is made possible only by an almost maniacal refusal to consider seriously the plays as plays, as creative works. Of King Lear, she writes that "for once, Shakespeare's dramatic control falters," and she claims that Macbeth "seems almost carelessly put together." The plot and language of Macbeth, on the contrary, are impossibly, unforgivingly tight. But Asquith appears not to particularly like Shakespeare's plays, and by the end of the book she hardly mentions them at all except in brief plot summaries. Shakespeare's literary imagination--that alchemist's furnace where he made gold from base metals--is sidelined; in the place of a writer Asquith offers us a spin doctor. It may be impossible to attend both to Shakespeare's biography and his plays, as each appears to falsify the other. Asquith's solution, to diminish the plays and to replace the creative writer with a mechanical propagandist, is inventive, but hollow.

There is, however, another solution to the problem of Shakespeare's biography. In "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Mark Anderson gives us the life we want of Shakespeare: He is a warrior and a playboy; bisexual, promiscuous, generous, dashing; "a brilliant and troubled man with whom one might enjoy sharing a beer but loathe sharing a house. He was at times a cad and a scoundrel. He was also a notorious teller of tall tales." He spent a lot of money on clothes, and threw great parties: One famous night's revels featured a firework dragon that set the house next door aflame. He killed a man, by mistake, in a duel. Doesn't this sound like Shakespeare? The trick, of course, is that it isn't: This is the life of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

"'Shakespeare,' it turns out, was one of the most autobiographical authors who ever took pen to paper," writes Anderson: "To recognize this, one only need redefine 'Shakespeare.'" As Anderson reminds us, Shakespeare's "documented biography is extensive, but it is all commercial activities, lawsuits, and entrepreneurial ventures"; Edward de Vere, by contrast, has exactly the right kind of biography. He went to Cambridge at the age of 8; he was a sickly child, but he led an army in Scotland; he enjoyed a passionate and unsuitable love affair, which led to an unhappy marriage; and he traveled widely across Europe meeting artists and thinkers and, according to Anderson, living the life that gave birth to the plays. Fearing the stigma of a playwriting career, de Vere simply hired the young actor Will Shakspere--the beard of Avon--as his frontman.

In this telling, the plays are still ciphers: not window dressing on a hidden calculus but coded biographies. Hamlet, Anderson notes, "closely follows the contours of de Vere's life," and Juliet and Desdemona are both portraits of his wife--who, like Shakespeare's, was named Anne. De Vere was involved in a legal case concerning the back payment of wages to soldiers in the Netherlands, which Anderson suggests is the source of The Merchant of Venice; noting that in the Sonnets Shakespeare uses lameness as a metaphor for lovesickness, Anderson observes that de Vere was lame. Any concept of literary creativity disappears, and Shakespeare's imagination becomes no more than a mechanism for reproducing biographical experience. This is a portrait of the artist as photocopier.

"My name is Will," writes Shakespeare in one of the sonnets. It is a joke: not proof that his name really is Will but a passing second of free play with naming and identity, with who we are and who we may be, and with possession and desire. Indeed, one of the joys of Shakespeare is the constant riddling of identity. In Henry V, the Chorus describes the young king as "like himself," and this tells us nothing, and all that we need to know, about our hero. "I am not what I am," the villain Iago confides in Othello; and Richard III is speaking directly to the audience when he declares, "I am I" and then, a couple of lines later, "Yet I lie: I am not."

Shakespeare's plays and poems are products of the imagination, and if they still speak to us today, it's because we remain willing to imagine along with them. Clare Asquith and Mark Anderson read with blinkers on, like Central Park horses trudging around the same old loop. This bleak prospect is the price we pay when we refuse to look at the plays. "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains," wrote Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/More than cool reason ever comprehends." If there is a lesson to be learned from the mismatch of Shakespeare's life and works, it is that we must clear a space for wonder.

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