Bad Will Hunting

Bad Will Hunting

Two new books on Shakespeare examine his shadowy life, his times and the origins of his imagination. A third explores whether the Bard of Avon was, in fact, Edward de Vere.


Portraits of Shakespeare don’t look like we want them to. In the well-known Chandos portrait, he is swarthily guarded, thuggish, and the only sign of life is the silver hoop in his left ear. Art historians are not sure if this really is a portrait of Shakespeare. The Flower portrait is more promising–the face is serenely human, and the curve of his lip implies a welcome smile–but last year the National Portrait Gallery in London revealed the painting to be a nineteenth-century forgery. And perhaps the best-known contender, the 1623 engraving on the title page of the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s works–an oversized head perched awkwardly upon an ornate ruff–was drawn by someone who had never met him. Shakespeare portraiture is a speculative genre, as an exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery in March will acknowledge. Called “Searching for Shakespeare,” it will present the various contender portraits as possibilities rather than likenesses. “Having a photograph of Shakespeare,” wrote Susan Sontag, “would be like having a nail from the True Cross.”

If Shakespeare study today is a lively mix of wishfulness, mythology and scholarship, this may simply be because we don’t know what he looked like, and what we do know about him is unsatisfactory. It is often claimed that we know little about Shakespeare’s life, but this is untrue. We have many life records. The picture they paint, however, is of a man we are unwilling to recognize. He was baptized and buried; he bought malt, houses and land; he sued people who owed him money, and he failed to pay his taxes; he gave legal testimony in a lawsuit over the financial settlement of a marriage, and his will is formulaic and businesslike. According to one seventeenth-century account, he was “not a company keeper,” and when asked to a party, he excused himself with a headache. How did this money-worried little capitalist, who conducted his life in a flurry of land deeds and small business ventures, write Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet? As Prospero tells Miranda in The Tempest, “My tale provokes that question.”

The records force us back to the portraits; but the portraits only look back at us, or apart from their potential inaccuracy, the three images of the artist commonly held to be the greatest writer who ever lived share one central trace. All are watchful; in each, the eyes follow us across the room. We’re in the grip of Shakespeare’s gaze, mesmerized by the enigma. But inside the works–inside the head, so to speak–are a series of warnings to those who would imagine the man. Othello, for one, is the tale of a man whose life is ruined by the stories that others tell about him, and in his desperate final lines the hero pleads to all would-be biographers. “I pray you, in your letters,/When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,” he begs, “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate.”

The academic study of Shakespeare is a discipline made up of strategies carefully wrought to avoid these matters. Published last fall, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World is a speculative biography that imagines what Shakespeare may have seen and where he may have been; the stylistic tic that most aggravated reviewers was Greenblatt’s insistent use of the conditional “perhaps,” which carefully signaled that this was, in fact, no more than intellectual fantasy. More recently, Greenblatt’s Harvard colleague Marjorie Garber released a 1,000-page bench press of a critical study, Shakespeare After All, which studiously avoids any mention of his life and instead finds the plays to refer exclusively to other plays, or to themselves. This past fall saw the publication of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, which skirts the larger story of the life in favor of a microscopic archeology of the day-to-day of a single year.

But this cautious academic approach to Shakespeare is only one face of the modern cult of the playwright. Like the slasher-movie serial killer, Shakespeare has escaped the grounds of the academic institutions and is now at large in the community. In this alternate universe, the most influential Shakespearean alive today is not Stephen Greenblatt but Julia Stiles, who has played the female lead in three Hollywood updates of Shakespeare plays in the past six years. This worldly Shakespeare is as pinup beautiful as Joseph Fiennes, and his words sit easily in the curled mouth of Leonardo DiCaprio. Such a man demands a flesh-and-blood biography, and three new books, each of which anchor the plays to the man, give it to him.

The hefty biographical confidence of Peter Ackroyd’s new life of Shakespeare is evident from the title: simply, Shakespeare: The Biography. This is a thoroughly sensible biography, beginning, as life does, with birth and politely accompanying our hero through a well-known arc: the early years as the child of a well-to-do family in Stratford-upon-Avon; lessons in the narrow classroom at the King’s New School, where he read Aesop and Ovid, was home for lunch at 11 and then off to games in the afternoon; a move to London, where he found hard-won theatrical success and a career as King James’s leading playwright; and then retirement, at about the age of 50, to a grand house in Stratford.

Ackroyd is the biographer of several opaque English literary figures–William Blake, Chaucer, Sir Thomas More–as well as the author of London: The Biography, so it comes as no surprise to find here a vivid grasp of the material elements of the daily life of long-lost England. Ackroyd paints this scene with quick, telling details. People got up at 4 in the morning and “by five, the streets were filled”; in the theaters, the audience ate, drank and smoked, and on the days when players did not occupy the stage there was bear-baiting. “It was the custom in Warwickshire,” Ackroyd writes, “to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly.” He is particularly strong on the London that, as he reminds us, “smelled terribly of dung and offal and human labor.” In all these small details–what journalists call “color”–we are reminded of the distance between this world and ours.

These details of imaginative reconstruction are the strongest elements of the book, and Ackroyd confidently places Shakespeare within them. Surveying the house in which the young playwright grew up, on Henley Street in Stratford, Ackroyd thoroughly describes its layout and proportions and goes on to comment: “It was also a noisy house, a wooden sound-box in which a conversation in one part of the house could clearly be heard in another.” The sounds of place are important: It is striking to remember, for example, that Stratford was a “well-watered town with various streams or streamlets running through the streets,” so the child Shakespeare “was never very far from the sound of water.”

But the Shakespeare who emerges from this grimy, smelly and lively world is a shadow of a man: Ackroyd stresses his “business-like acumen” and then again notes “his practical and business-like approach to all the affairs of the world.” This hard-nosed theatrical bureaucrat, “in every sense a professional,” is the logical result of the business records which constitute the few traces of Shakespeare’s life, but the tension here between the man we want and the man we have looms like a huge canyon of disappointment. “There is nothing,” declares Ackroyd, “of personal vanity or personal eccentricity about him,” and this is, unfortunately, simply untrue. The thirty-eight wondrous, bizarre and often terrifying plays, as well as the poems, are nothing less than absolute proof of a flamboyantly idiosyncratic imagination.

Ackroyd is magisterial on the contexts–the smells of London, the details of the playing companies, the hare’s brain jelly of daily life–but weak on the texts, as each stage of his cautious character study can be falsified by examining the plays. The relationship between biography and works may be unknowable, but it is also tantalizing. Surely there cannot be a total divide between life and art. “Shakespeare was a profoundly unsentimental person,” Ackroyd announces; yet he imagined the clown-king Falstaff, whose betrayal and death in the Henry IV and Henry V plays are one of the peaks of English sentimental drama. “He never took sides,” insists Ackroyd; yet Shakespeare is clearly and extravagantly on the side of Romeo and Juliet against the bloodthirsty legions of Capulets and Montagues. He was, Ackroyd tells us, “an eminently practical and pragmatic man of the theater”; yet the scene in Richard II where the vacuous king is deposed was so controversial that it was censored from all editions of the play printed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

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.

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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