In Search of the Elusive Bard: The Plays Are Still the Thing

Shakespeare’s biographers are mesmerized by the misfit of the scant records of his life and the continuing power of his

Shakespeare’s biographers are mesmerized by the misfit of the scant records of his life and the continuing power of his plays. No biography has found the right join of personality and achievement, and recent ones only add more wrinkles by proposing Shakespeare as a secret Catholic; merely a contributor to the collective authorship of theatrical troupes; impotent in his fear of castration; and an unwitting tool of the repressive Elizabethan political machine. A recent article in The New York Times proposed (seriously) that a course in Shakespeare identity be added to the curriculum. Speculations regarding disguised, better-qualified writers who assumed the name of William Shakespeare are rehashed, not because we can’t believe the Stratford man wrote the plays, but because it’s hard to fathom how any imaginable person could have written them. James Shapiro, author of a new biographical study, admits defeat: “[Shakespeare] is fundamentally private and inscrutable.”

The crucial question, though, is not about the author’s identity. It’s how daily life, emotion and thought transmute into art—art being that impersonal creation which communicates intense responses from one being to another. Those verbal constructs known to us as Lear, Hamlet and Rosalind emerge as spectacular personalities, and critics struggle to account for their invention. How does one account for genius? Why is it that one person has creative abilities and another doesn’t? Every book about Shakespeare—including Mr. Shapiro’s and a new biography from the hugely prolific British author Peter Ackroyd—attempts an answer of sorts.

Mr. Shapiro devotes his book to the year 1599 (Shakespeare’s 35th), during which, he believes, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Henry V were first performed, and the playwright polished a revision of an old play (possibly his own) called Hamlet. This was “the most decisive year of his career, one in which he redefined himself and his theater.”

Literature was doing great, but political life not so great. Old Queen Elizabeth was on her last legs (she had four years left), Spain was plotting to send a new Armada against a weakened England, and an English attempt, conducted by the Earl of Essex, to suppress an Irish rebellion was a costly disaster. For Mr. Shapiro, the destabilizing insecurity of royal succession and national humiliation are in the weave of the 1599 plays. Of Hamlet he writes, “It was all the more striking that he would choose such a moment to update a story of a corrupt court (before whom a seditious play is performed), problematic succession, the threat of invasion, and the dangers of a coup.”

Mr. Shapiro—an eminent Columbia professor and a good writer—forces his argument by stuffing lots of facts and plays into those 12 months; he works strenuously and convincingly to make them implicate one another. He shows how the aborted Irish campaign, as it turns from heroic venture to disaster, “haunts” the author’s mind and drives Henry V and its revisions. “It wasn’t a pro-war play, or an anti-war play, but a going-to-war play.” Shakespeare’s ambiguous view of kingship and war are well demonstrated by comparing Laurence Olivier’s excited warrior in the 1944 film with Kenneth Branagh’s troubled bully boy of 1989.

Having pored over all the literary remains of the year 1599 and considered its social and political events, Mr. Shapiro ultimately abandons the slight gimmick of its framework and arouses greater interest and genuine excitement when he settles down to his home turf of literary studies (which he complements with an invigorated form of historiography). He gets his best results by considering how Shakespeare’s dramas were affected by a new translation of Plutarch and John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essays. Close study of the differences among the three extant versions of Hamlet compels him to rethink, profitably, Shakespeare’s method of working and suggests a new appreciation of Shakespeare as an artist fully in control of his craft. As Mr. Shapiro knows, it’s there, in the making of his plays, that we’ll find his heart and mind.

In this fundamentally solid job, there’s too much of Tacitus, too much of the historian John Hayward and a belabored description of the construction of the Globe Theater. Peter Ackroyd’s telling of the same story—much shorter and conflicting in major detail—has less authority. Mr. Shapiro knows how to traffic through source material, and has spent prodigious effort doing so; his 40-page bibliographical essay, a good read in itself, humiliates Mr. Ackroyd’s thin notes. Mr. Ackroyd—“a Shakespeare enthusiast rather than expert”—doesn’t even use to advantage the works listed in his bibliography.

According to his subtitle, Mr. Ackroyd’s Shakespeare is “The Biography.” Mr. Ackroyd’s subject has always been England and its writers. His last major book, Albion (2003), was an attempt to define the English imagination; readers of Shakespeare will recognize lots from that book.

The early sections are the best, especially when, on slim evidence, Mr. Ackroyd constructs a reasonable scenario of Shakespeare’s apprentice years in the theater, from 1585 to 1589, during which he might have written a lost version of Hamlet, first versions of King John and Taming of the Shrew, and made major contributions to the earliest versions of the Henry VI trilogy. There might be more: “Perhaps his first plays have simply disappeared, lost in the voracious maw of time and forgetfulness.”

With a touch of English snobbery—and by stretching the known facts—Mr. Ackroyd attempts to elevate Shakespeare’s social standing (as Shakespeare himself did when he applied for a coat of arms): “Shakespeare came from a family of undoubted affluence, with all the ease and self-confidence that such affluence encourages,” Mr. Ackroyd writes. “Shakespeare may have already considered himself to be of noble stock.”

Mr. Ackroyd is “with it” in taking up the relatively new twist of a Catholic Shakespeare, though he wobbles a bit on how Catholic in feeling the plays are. “Just as he was a man without opinions, so he was a man without beliefs.” Catholics in Elizabethan England had to keep their faith to themselves—even those “without beliefs”—and Mr. Ackroyd offers that this in part accounts for Shakespeare’s obscured personality. In fact, throughout the book, Shakespeare manages to disappear: “Once more, he becomes invisible. That invisibility, or ambiguity, is reflected in his work itself.” Are the plays really invisible or ambiguous, or is this just fancy prose?

Biographers and novelists have every right to imagine a life story for Shakespeare; it’s the quality and likelihood of that invention that’s to be judged. Last year, Colm Tóibín published a novel about Henry James, The Master, an exemplary instance of what can be achieved in this vein. Stephen Greenblatt’s recent attempt to imagine Shakespeare’s life, Will in the World, was warm beer. Peter Ackroyd’s is flat.

Like a pampered, gassy guest at a dinner party, Mr. Ackroyd is full of bright ideas (Shakespeare “would have made an excellent secretary”); surprising tastes (in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare “is writing at the height of his invention”); recondite trivia (Shakespeare uses the word “crown” 380 times); wild guesses (“Although he clearly was at some pains to conceal it, Shakespeare himself had a sure sense of his own worth”); peculiar intuitions (“He does not know what guides his hand … or what force impels him”); provocative prejudices (Shylock “is beyond good and evil. He is simply a magnificent stage representation”); and glib confusions (“The ‘Moor’ himself is of Spanish origin”—that should come as a surprise to many North Africans). Absence of meaning and intent is a big thing for Mr. Ackroyd: “It is impossible to gauge what attitude [Shakespeare] takes towards the unfolding drama of King Lear …. The drama has no ultimate ‘meaning.’”

Expected to astonish his dinner companions at every moment, Mr. Ackroyd never shuts up. His book is composed of 91 anecdotal, vaguely chronological, chapterettes with cunning titles such as “I Am a Kind of Burre, I Shal Sticke,” and “Doth Rauish Like Inchaunting Harmonie” (he’s all for original spelling—so much more authentic). His patter is punctuated with swift descents into gibberish (“In the lives of great men and women, however, there is a pattern of destiny”) and mundane aesthetics (“Entire plays seem to be made up of parallels and contrasts and echoes”). As the evening drawls on, the guest of honor drinks too much wine, loses the point, tries to find it by repeating himself (is he or his editor responsible for the numbing reiteration of “as I mentioned”?). Finally, you don’t care whether or not he gets home safely.

Despite the inexhaustible interpretive flexibility of the plays, and their vitality—fair enough by now to grant them “immortality”—we’ll have to go on waiting patiently for the biography that exposes Shakespeare’s true life. And that, of course, will require a writer of genius.

Robert Cornfield’s book on Shakespeare’s plays will be published next year by Bloomsbury.

In Search of the Elusive Bard: The Plays Are Still the Thing