Shakespeare's Biography Problem

On Acover of the book Shakespeare the Lodgerpril 23, we celebrate the birthday of the Bard, William Shakespeare. This is a good time to consider the paradox in most biographers' attempts to write a biography of Shakespeare: they have little historical evidence to build on, yet they seek to explain a life of vast significance -- Shakespeare is important for the growth of our language, the life of the theater and the shape of our culture. 

Nonetheless, this difficulty does not deter most of those who choose to write about Shakespeare. And why should it? To some degree, all biographies are based on speculation about the meaning of a person's life, imposing a pattern that gives coherence to the narrative of events of an individual's existence.

Unfortunately, few historical, legal and literary facts about Shakespeare are left to us from the past, upon which we could sketch a viable picture of the course of the writer's life. So in order to construct a biographical narrative, authors have used a number of circumstantial approaches that seek to overcome this handicap, such as sketching the social history of the times, connecting him with larger religious or political controversies, or even tracking his residences. 

Charles Nicholl takes a unique approach to Shakespeare's life by trying to understand him through the subcultures of the neighborhoods he lived in. The book The Lodger Shakespeare: His life on Silver Street gives a full description of the varied residences of Shakespeare in London and considers the ways of life -- Huguenot, bohemian and even criminal -- that may have shaped the young and middle-aged Shakespeare.  In this exploration, we learn a great deal about the lifestyle of a typical writer in Elizabethan times, thanks to the depiction of the daily life of Robert Green, a contemporary writer who lived in the same neighborhoods as Shakespeare. 

Here we see the small library, primitive furniture and elaborate four-poster bed of a contemporary writer. We also learn a great deal about the ways of doing business, marriage customs and habits of the refugee Huguenot neighborhoods where Shakespeare lived during the height of his career. Nevertheless, little specifically connects the individual Shakespeare with what we know about this unique neighborhood.
cover of book Shadowplay
Clare Asquith interprets Shakespeare’s life in terms of the religious politics of the times in her book Shadowplay. She sees Shakespeare as belonging to the Catholic Resistance during the Protestant Reforms of Henry and Elizabeth.

Shakespeare is pictured as allied through patronage with Lord Southampton and others who were conducting an underground opposition to Elizabeth’s regime and the circle of political courtiers such as the Cecils, who were part of the Radical Reformation. Here we gain a great deal of information about the Catholic Aristocracy of the North and its resistance activities. But the connection to Shakespeare himself is tenuous.

That connection is only maintained by oblique literary references found in the plays that may relate to the Catholic cause.

Stephen Greenblatt takes a completely different approach by writting a biography depicting the identity formation of Shakespeare.

Will In The World:How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen GreenblattHis book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, focuses on the psychology of Shakespeare, looking at the artist's growth from an attraction to the fantasy and play aspect of the theater to a substantial career in the theater. For Greenblatt, Shakespeare was motivated by a strong ambition fed by a feeling of inadequacy formed by the decline of his father’s finances and political career.

From his youth, Shakespeare had the goal of becoming an educated gentleman. But that ambition was blocked by poverty. Young Shakespeare's overriding desire to become a real gentleman was realized in his career as a theater manager and playwright, and, in his old age, literary recognition and respectability. He was the only non-university member of the literary circles he moved in; his reputation as an “upstart crow” emerged from this lack of formal education. Shakespeare achieved more than his contemporaries through a recreation of the self.

Having considered these recent biographies of Shakespeare, we can see how they make good use of the lack of biographical facts in imaginatively interpreting Shakespeare in varied ways. Take a look at these works and see just how differently three people can see the same person.


--Paul Sweeney