‘William Shakespeare’s name may have been spelt wrong’

According to the Daily Express (23 April 2019) these ‘unearthed’ signatures (who knew they’d been ‘earthed’?) raise questions about Shakespeare’s identity and the authorship of the plays. Read my reflections on the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

Shakespearean Selves

Graham Holderness

“Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?”

  • Shakespeare in Love (Madden 1998)

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came. (Hopkins, 1996: 115)

Hopkins’s magnificent poem is the most extreme statement of identity as ‘self’: intrinsic, unique, irreplaceable selfhood. Every living creature has within it, ‘indoors’, its own essence, its ‘being’ (‘being indoors each one dwells’). But ‘being’ is also doing, since each thing speaks its individuality by ‘doing’ itself, performing its being. Action expresses essential being: being functions in utterance, in speaking and spelling. Creation is an immense multiplicity of individualities, of differences that emanate from a great commonality, a great simplicity: each thing does ‘one thing’, which is also ‘the same’: being itself.

Though a contemporary of Marx, Darwin and Freud, Hopkins of course inhabited a world of mediaeval philosophy and theology divorced from the great intellectual currents of the time. While the dominant modern thinkers were refashioning the self as socially constructed, naturally conditioned, internally self-divided and alone in a godless universe, Hopkins continued to speak from a much older agenda in which the self is interior, immanent, essential and god-given.

Literary biography is however largely based on such older notions of the self and of human being. What is the relationship between the writer and his work? Who was the man who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems? The biographer seeks to offer a coherent ‘account of Shakespeare’s life, writings and afterlife’. (Wells 2002: xviii) Here the author is sovereign, the originator and shaper of the writing, the driving imaginative force, the controlling artistic authority. The writer precedes the work, so the relationship is from writer to work, the writer signing and stamping the work with his/her own character. The writer is cause, writing the effect. Shakespeare must have possessed an intrinsic being that expressed itself in a unique voice. The work should ‘speak’ and ‘spell’ the intrinsic Shakespearean self, that ‘being’ that ‘indoors each one dwells’; the writing should fling out broad the name of ‘Shakespeare’; and the literary biography should be able to delineate the character of the man who invested the works with that distinctive and unique quality of being.

Most contemporary Shakespeare criticism and scholarship derives from Marx and Darwin and Freud (through Barthes and Foucault and Lacan) rather than from the pre-modern philosophy celebrated by Hopkins; which is why Shakespeare biography was of little interest to Shakespeare criticism of the 1980s. There the reading relationship was backwards, as it actually is in practice, from writing to writer. The work precedes the author: the writer is an effect of the writing. Barthes and Foucault had declared ‘the death of the author’: the ‘author’ was in reality a function of the text. Because the literary work is constructed in the act of reading, and in relation to the context in which it is read, ‘authorship’ is just one element of that process, and the primary link between the writer and the work is broken. What matters is not what the author meant by the words he/she wrote, but what we mean by them when we read them.  

Quite a lot is known about Shakespeare’s life: but never really enough, as the life as we know it doesn’t adequately seem to explain the poetry. For modern Shakespeare criticism, that hardly seemed to matter. Twenty years ago my critical anthology The Shakespeare Myth addressed’Shakespeare’ not as an author, but as an institution or cultural apparatus. This was the position on ‘authorship’: 

We cannot rely, when addressing the work of a Renaissance dramatist, on the apparent clarity and simplicity of a direct, controlling relationship between author and written text. These plays were made and mediated in the interaction of certain complex material conditions, of which the author was only one. When we deconstruct the Shakespeare myth what we discover is not a universal individual genius creating literary texts that remain a permanently valuable repository of human experience and wisdom; but a collaborative cultural process in which plays were made by writers, theatrical entrepreneurs, architects and craftsmen, actors and audience. (Holderness 1988: 13)

Much of this still stands. The production of literary drama is a collective and collaborative activity; the dramatic work, whether being performed in the theatre or reproduced through the printing house, is rarely if ever under the author’s sole control; and above all, we can’t get outside our culture’s recognition that writing turns into meaning not when it’s under the control of the writer, but when it’s activated by the reader. ‘Shakespeare’, I said in The Shakespeare Myth, in a much-quoted sentence, ‘is, here, now, always, what is currently being made of him’. (Holderness 1988: xvi) This approach has since been labelled ‘presentism’. Our reading or viewing of the plays constructs the meaning of the work, between the horizons of our understanding, within the context of our experience, and answering to the deepest needs of our being. In which case the authority of the author inevitably diminishes in proportion to the empowerment of the reader. The Author is dead; long live the reader.

According to presentism, an interest in the Shakespeare biography is not a question about history, or reality, or truth; but a question about contemporary preferences and priorities. It’s about what sort of man we would prefer Shakespeare to have been.  We go to the past to answer questions that are asked in the present; we seek our own reflections in the glass of history. Agnes Heller called this attitude to the past ‘nostalgia’.  Her image is that of a well, into which we peer, and to the surface of which we seek to draw the elusive shapes of the past.  Nostalgia ‘cannot resurrect the dead…but it makes the dead speak and act as if they were alive.  Having been brought to the surface from the well, which mirrors our faces whenever we lean over it, these dead are everything we desire to be’. (Heller 1993: 40) While we imagine that what becomes visible in that long, receding tunnel, that well, is the past itself; we find that in actuality we are engaged in a narcissistic contemplation of the reflection of our own wishes and desires in the surface of the water.  

 One of the most powerful voices of the 1980s wrote in very similar accents:

I began with the desire to speak with the dead…[but] I never believed that the dead could hear me … I knew that the dead could not speak … It was true that I could hear only my own voice, but my own voice was the voice of the dead, for the dead had contrived to leave textual traces of themselves, and those textual traces make themselves heard in the voice of the living … (Greenblatt 1988: 5)

The opening of Shakespearean Negotiations of course. For Greenblatt both literature and history consisted of ‘textual traces’ from which the life has disappeared, but which remain capable of living expression. They are not however ‘sources of numinous authority’, but ‘signs of contingent social practices’. (5)  Greenblatt states this as a paradox: he is interested in early modern texts, and frequents them to find out what they mean.  At the same time he believes that there is no transhistorical human nature; that history is a contemporary narrative, a story we tell ourselves about the past; and that language is no transparent and unmediated window onto an objective and independent reality, but rather a closed system within which all our perceptions and interpretations – including those of history and human nature – are contained.  A word or object from the past exists and has meaning only within the system and structure, the perpetual contemporaneity, of living language. The author is still here in this process, but assuming a diminished role; and the emphasis is resolutely ‘presentist’, since the voices of the dead can only be heard when mimed by the voices of the living.

But almost twenty years on, in 2004, Greenblatt published Will in the World: how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, an attempt to bring those dead back to life. The reception of this biography is already a well-known story. The book is a formal biography, using the established facts and traditions, reading the plays and poems in the light of them, and producing potential explanations of how the life and the works might be interrelated. The book was alternately praised and criticised as a popular/academic crossover text. It was seen both as a fulfilment of Greenblatt’s New Historicism, and as an act of ‘apostasy’ against it. It was celebrated for the quality, and castigated for the poverty, of its scholarship. Above all it was attacked for investing more in speculation and invention than in historical evidence; and lauded for exactly the same thing. It’s just a ‘biographical fiction’ said Colin Burrow (2005: 9). The book is ‘entirely Greenblat’s fiction’ said Richard Jenkyns (2004: 22), and indeed ‘an improbable fiction’. Alistair Fowler, in one of the most hostile reviews received (in TLS), suggested that Greenblatt might have been better off making ‘a crossover into historical fiction’ where he could freely have fomented conjecture with even less respect for evidence. This should not be the case in a literary biography: here the ‘subject veers too much between Shakespeare’s imagination and Stephen Greenblatt’s own’. (2005: 5)

On the other hand plenty of reviewers lined up to praise Greenblatt’s imaginative and inventive approach to his subject. The book should be read as   ‘imaginative writing’ (Aune 2006).  Greenblatt’s ‘chief allegiance is to imagination’, says Lois Potter (2005: 375), and the book rightly stresses ‘the importance of imagination in our approach to this supremely imaginative writer’. Charles Marowitz calls the book an  ‘extended flight of fancy’, but of a valid kind: ‘a speculative leap into the murky life of Shakespeare, using one’s knowledge of the period, hints from the collected works and a creative use of conjecture, is a perfectly legitimate endeavour’. (Marowitz 2005)

Now apart from Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (which was a companion volume to the full-blown biography and mythography Shakespeare’s Lives) there is no such thing as a speculation-free biography of Shakespeare. How could there be? Greenblatt’s challenge to orthodoxy was to be much more overtly fictional or metafictional in his method, much more self-reflexive in declaring the conjectural and speculative character of his writing. The best-known example is the possible meeting Greenblatt provisionally stages between Shakespeare and Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, which he invents as a possible event in Shakespeare’s Lancastrian and recusant lost years. But the episode is clearly signalled as a piece of story-telling: ‘Let us imagine the two of them sitting together’ (Greenblatt 2004: 108) Are you sitting comfortably? If not; if you don’t want to join the author in his flight of fancy; then don’t bother.

Will in the World has two main methods: reading from documentary facts or recorded traditions towards the works; and reading back from the works in an attempt to bestow distinguishing features on the life. In short Greenblatt uses the author and the writing as both cause and effect. He posits a Shakespearean ‘self’ that drove the writings: but he accepts that this ‘self’ is ‘obscure’ and impenetrable. He accepts that the channel of causation from self to work is hard to map; but presupposes that some such transference must have occurred.

This book … aims to discover the actual person who wrote the most important body of literature of the last thousand years. Or rather, since the actual person is a matter of well-documented public record, it aims to tread the shadowy paths that lead from the life he lived into the literature he created. (12)

Some of these paths seem very shadowy indeed. Take the long chapter called ‘Speaking with the Dead’, which focuses on Hamlet and on the deaths of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and his father John.  As Gary Taylor (2004: 9) points out, although this is all about Shakespeare’s imagined attempts to speak with the dead, the phrase is the famous one used by Greenblatt himself in his earlier work: ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’. So who’s speaking here? And who’s dead? 

The biographical basis of the chapter rests in a few documentary facts. Shakespeare’s 11-year old son Hamnet died in 1596. His father John Shakespeare died in 1601. Between these two deaths Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. The play is of course permeated by all sorts of emotions and questions a bereaved father might feel and ask. But the hero of the play, Hamlet, is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, not afflicted by the loss of a son.

Greenblatt tells a story (adumbrated earlier of course by James Joyce) that aspires to explain the play that lies between these two momentous departures. Shakespeare ‘undoubtedly’ returned to Stratford for Hamnet’s funeral. (312) There he heard the words of the burial service that echo eloquently in the play. But there, Greenblatt suggests, he became acutely aware of how much he and his family missed in being deprived of Catholic rituals for the dead: the Latin memorial prayers, the candles, bells and crosses, the alms-giving and requiem masses. Shakespeare wanted, Greenblatt suggests, to mourn his son in the traditional pattern of worship, and was unable to do so. ‘What ceremony else?’, he must have thought as he stood by the grave-side, unable to pray for his son’s soul.

The Roman Catholic ‘spiritual testament’ signed by John Shakespeare and hidden in the rafters of his Stratford house requested those he leaves behind to ‘vouchsafe to assist and succour me with their holy prayers and satisfactory works, especially with the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as being the most effectual means to deliver souls from their torments and pains’. Greenblatt goes even further and suggests that John Shakespeare may have pleaded with William, ‘appealed urgently to his son’ (316) to have masses said for the soul of Hamnet. This is of course pure invention, but Greenblatt makes it sound convincing enough: ‘The arguments, or pleading, or tears that may have accompanied such appeals are irrevocably lost’. (316)  This is of course the anguished pleading we also hear from the Ghost in Hamlet, who comes from Purgatory.

Greenblatt is drawing on historical work that assessed the impact of the Reformation on the relationship between the living and the dead, and which earlier formed the basis for his Hamlet in Purgatory. He also echoes his own earlier work in Shakespearean Negotiations: ‘What mattered’ he says in Will in the World, ‘was whether the dead could continue to speak to the living, at least for a short time, whether the living could help the dead, whether a reciprocal bond remained’. (315) But out of these diverse roots, Greenblatt creates imaginatively a vivid drama in which a father, perhaps nearing death, appeals to his son to maintain a practice of traditional piety; and the son is perhaps unable or unwilling to do so. Now this is not just about Shakespeare.

In the ‘Prologue’ to Hamlet in Purgatory Greenblatt writes about his father, who died in 1983. Scarred by the painful death of his own father, Greenblatt Sr. lived in a perpetual denial of death. Yet, ‘when we read his will’, Greenblatt  says, ‘we found that he had, after all, been thinking about his death. He had left a sum of money to an organisation that would say kaddish for him – kaddish being the Aramaic prayer for the dead, recited for eleven months after a person’s death and then on certain annual occasions … the prayer is usually said by the deceased’s immediate family and particularly by his sons … Evidently my father did not trust either my older brother or me to recite the prayer for him’. (Greenblatt 2001: 6-7)

Kaddish is a central Jewish prayer, praising the power and glory of God, one version of which is used as a memorial prayer for the dead. So all this talk of bereavement, and maimed rites, and fathers appealing for ancient observances, and speaking with the dead, is certainly about Shakespeare, and about Hamlet. But it’s also about Stephen Greenblatt. John Shakespeare and other Catholics, he says, in requesting requiem masses ‘were asking those who loved them to do something crucially important for them’. (Greenblatt 2004: 317) Greenblatt’s father did not ask him to say kaddish, and that in itself was clearly doubly painful for the son. But he says it anyway, ‘in a blend of love and spite’ (Greenblatt 2001: 7), and ends the preface to Hamlet in Purgatory: ‘this practice then, which with a lightly ironic piety I, who scarcely know how to pray, undertook for my own father, is the personal starting point for what follows’. (9)

‘What purports to be an image of Shakespeare is only an idealised image of the biographer himself’. Greenblatt, says Gary Taylor (2004: 9), has ‘mined his own life to supply the emotional raw materials that energise this book’. So there is a ‘personal starting point’ for this exercise as well as a starting point in the author, and innumerable others in the historical context. By the end of this chapter in Will in the World all these are merged together:

Shakespeare drew upon the pity, confusion and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals (the world in which most of us continue to live) because he himself experienced those same emotions at the core of his being. (Greenblatt 2004: 321)

The world of damaged rituals is that of Protestant early modernity, which killed off the old Catholic consolations of purgatory and efficacious prayer for the dead. But it is also the world of secular modernity, in which the son of a pious Jew involuntarily absorbs his culture’s agnosticism and feels a consequential loss. Shakespeare lived in this world, Hamlet lives in that world, and so too does Greenblatt.  All experience these fundamental emotions of irreparable loss, aching nostalgia and the desire to speak with the dead, ‘at the core of … being’.

We’ve clearly reached a significant point here, the ‘core of being’, the ‘heart of the matter’. Once Greenblatt would not have talked about the ‘core of being’. It’s a phrase that speaks to pre-modern ideas of human nature and essential being. In the universe of post-structuralist criticism and theory, identity is unstable and changeable (cp. Renaissance Self-fashioning); the reality of human existence lies in the externalities of language and social context; literature is not about personal experience but about the circulation of social energy.

To return to the ‘core of being’ is to revert to much more traditional notions of the self, identity, existence and essence. But interestingly what lies at the core of being is not the isolated autonomous and disconnected individuality that Marxist theory attributes to bourgeois ideology. Instead what we find in those depths of human emotion and desire is – another. In Greenblatt it is the father; in Shakespeare the son; in Hamlet father and son. Greenblatt can admit that he has a core of being because someone else has, by his death, penetrated it so deeply. He reads and hears the self-same ache of painful love in Hamlet; and from there he speculates that it must have lain at the core of Shakespeare’s being too.

Like all of Shakespeare’s work, this is a story that can’t be proved (or disproved). It’s a story woven between the pegs of certain documentary facts: the death of Hamnet, 1596; the death of John Shakespeare in 1601; the composition of the play Hamlet, first published in 1603; John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament. But it’s also a story mapped between certain poles of emotional truth: first what we read in the play, the anguish of the father, the grief of the son; and secondly Greenblatt’s own sense of bereavement and obligation. These two points are then triangulated against a third that cannot be known in the same way, the condition of the author’s heart and soul; what was passing in the core of the Shakespearean being.

Where does this leave us? We’ve got the author back from the dead. His emotional experience predicates the writing, causes it to be. But that remains an inferential relationship impossible to prove or demonstrate. So the critic has recourse to his imagination, and creates a narrative consistent with the documentary facts, and with the emotional truths embedded both in the writing, and in the heart of the critic. As one critic puts it, he ‘lets his imagination loose in the fields of his knowledge’. (Middlebrook 2005: 16) No-one disputes Greenblatt’s knowledge: but for some readers the result remains unclear as to whether it’s ‘fact or fiction, criticism or history’.  (Fowler 2005: 3)

In trying to account for the effect great literature has on him then, the critic is to some extent making it up as he goes along. But this is not just a sort of opportunistic appropriation of the work, perverting it from its original meaning: since the motivation for doing it comes from a very deep source, what Greenblatt calls the ‘core of being’. Literature touches us so deeply that we’re driven to presuppose that the author must also have been touched in some comparable way, depth calling to depth.

Now this method can be challenged: we can say, as many readers have, that this is nothing to do with the author of Shakespeare’s plays, and that the critic is just writing about himself. In defence of the method we could say that the documented facts of Shakespeare’s life are so sparse that it is impossible to avoid filling the gaps they leave with invention. If the result is a consistent and plausible way of explaining the evidence: the poems, the facts, the traditions – then it will do, it’s the nearest we ever really get to the truth.

But clearly this opens up other possibilities as well. If what happened at the core of Shakespeare’s being to generate Hamlet was much the same as what happened at the core of Greenblatt’s being at the death of his father, then there is nothing unique about the experience. Similar things obviously happen at the core of everybody’s being. And if we reach out from our own being to complete a story that lies dormant among the tattered traces of historical fact, then there are many other stories that we could tell, stories that might equally convincingly, or even more convincingly, account for the evidence.  

But did we not start with the ‘self’ as something individual, intrinsic, unique, irreplaceable?  Let me return to G M Hopkins. In the second part of ‘As kingfishers catch fire’, all things, including human beings, are ‘selves’. But in human beings there is something ‘more’. For the individuality that occupies humanity is also an Other – the God who, as creator, indwells all human beings. Man can ‘be’ godlike, expressing a god-given grace, which for Hopkins means ‘acting’ out the nature of Christ. So individuality is now multiple, since human being is also sharing in the being of God through the human Christ. ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’. ‘Plays’ like a light, like an actor, like a child, human and divine at once. And since this is of course a poem of Trinitarian Christian theology, the grace that human beings can participate in is a grace given from ‘the Father’, and returned to the Father in the performance of Christ-like action, ‘graces’. This is what we’re here for. For that I came.

Intrinsic, unique, irreplaceable individuality turns out to be multiple, relational, a family affair. Inside the human self are God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit as well as the unique human self. Human beings are linked to one another through their common creation at the hands of the maker of all things. Action expresses being as interaction. The ‘self’ is after all a busy, crowded place.  Biography is not intrinsic but relational.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is-
Christ-for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 Works Cited

Aune, M.G., 2006. “Crossing the Border: Shakespeare Biography, Academic Celebrity, and the Reception of Will in the World”. Borrowers and Lenders 2(2), n.p.

Burrow, Colin. 2005. “Who Wouldn’t Buy It?” Review of Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. London Review of Books, 27.2, 20 January, 9-11.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. 2004. “Will-o’-the Wisp Forever.” Review of Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Spectator, 9 October, 54.

Fowler, Alastair. 2005. “Enter Speed.” Review of Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. Times Literary Supplement, 4 February, 3-5.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 1980. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen, 2001. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 2004. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Norton.

Holderness, Graham, ed. 1988. The Shakespeare Myth. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Holderness, Graham, 2001. Cultural Shakespeare: essays in the Shakespeare Myth. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Hopkins, Gerard Manly. 1996. Selected Poetry. Catherine Phillips (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkyns, Richard. 2004. “Bad Will Hunting.” Review of Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. The New Republic, 22 November, 21-24.

Madden, John, dir. 1998. Shakespeare In Love. Performers Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Anthony Sher, Judi Dench, Gwyneth Paltrow. USA. Miramax.

 Marowitz, Charles, 2005. “Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World”. Swans Commentary, 25 April.

Middlebrook, Diane, 2006. “The Role of the Narrator in Literary Biography”. South Central Review 23.3. 5-18.

Potter, Lois. 2005. Review of Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. Shakespeare Quarterly 56.3: 34-76.

Taylor, Gary. 2004. “Stephen, Will, and Gary too.” Review of Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Guardian, 9 October, 9.

 Wells, Stanley, 2002. Shakespeare: for all time. London: Macmillan.


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