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Artists’ lives are not automatically interesting. However wild the nights, an artist’s days are dominated by solitary devotion to the medium: the texture of paint, the measure of syllables. Without that devotion, an artist will have no life as an artist. Along with it, an artist may engage in activities whose subsequent availability to storytelling is far more immediate. Arthur Rimbaud had an affair with Paul Verlaine. Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the Ouse. The Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe, who also worked as a government agent, was stabbed to death with a twelve-penny dagger. But such stories, however fascinating, do not tell us what we really want to know–how and why A Season in Hell, Mrs. Dalloway and Tamburlaine got written.
About Marlowe’s exact contemporary, a man christened on April 26, 1564, as Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere (William, son of John Shakespeare), we know almost nothing. We do not know his date of birth. We cannot be sure how many plays he wrote, and neither do we know precisely when he wrote the plays that have been preserved. When multiple versions of his plays have come down to us, we cannot know for certain which version is authoritative. Shakespeare may have been a cuckold, a homosexual or a secret Catholic during a time when Catholics were persecuted in England. But the evidence for such conjectures ranges from slim to implausible. Far less precarious is the presumption that, like Rimbaud or Woolf, Shakespeare spent long, unglamorous hours devoting himself to the measure of syllables. As George Bernard Shaw said a century ago, “everything we know about Shakespeare can be got into a half-hour sketch.”
Understandably, we want more than that. We want to know how and why Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Tempest got written. We want to know about every imaginable ingredient–social, aesthetic, psychological, physical–that was distilled into this artist’s passionate but inauspicious devotion to his medium, a devotion so intense that it permanently altered the medium. Shakespeare coined the word “inauspicious,” riffing on the Latin auspicium, the art of telling the future by observing the flights of birds: “And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars.” Finally, whether we’re fascinated by an artist about whom we know a lot or a little, an artist whose exterior life was brilliant or boring, we want a biography of the mind. In Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, the British scholar and literary critic Jonathan Bate has set himself this challenge.
What does a biography of the mind feel like? Although Woolf’s exterior life was plenty interesting and fully documented, the best biographies of Woolf (such as those by Lyndall Gordon and Hermione Lee) read like biographies of her mind, accounts of how and why she wrote the books that made her interesting to us in the first place. This is because Woolf’s inner life was as meticulously preserved as her social life; a biographer has access not only to her voluminous letters and diaries but to the intricate and multiple drafts of her novels, manuscripts that help us imagine her devotion to her medium. A biographer of Keats has less to go on, but lives of Keats still feel like biographies of the mind. So do the best lives of Dr. Johnson.