The English Rugby Football Union is debating whether or not to ban the singing of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as an anthem by its spectators. Although the hymn was apparently adopted by crowds as a way of honouring the achievement of black players, it is being described as ‘controversial’ and ‘problematic’ because of its links with slavery.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was indeed written by a former slave, Wallace Willis, though he was hardly a stereotypical one. He was the property of the Choctaw Nation of Native Americans, who ran plantations with slave labour in Oklahoma. The Choctaw sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, and were obliged to manumit their slaves after the war as part of a treaty with the US government signed in 1866. Thus, Willis became a ‘freedman’ of the Choctaw nation.

Why should a song of anguish and hope from the past be something to censor in the present? The spiritual is seen as problematic by those who regard its expressions of longing and pain as a gesture of defeatist passivity, resigned to bondage as an inevitable condition of life, to be relieved only by death and the entry into heaven. This interpretation plays into the narrative of Christianity as an instrument of imperialist subjugation, designed to pacify the oppressed into submission: the opium of the masses. It fails to take account of both the political and religious significance of such songs in their time.

The chariot in the hymn is of course drawn from the prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), linking American slavery with that of the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The motif of crossing the Jordan invokes the escape of the Israelites from slavery among the Egyptians, the liberation from bondage, the entry into the Promised Land. In the American South it denoted travelling the ‘underground railroad’, and crossing over into the freedom of the North. Frederick Douglass, former slave, Abolitionist and author of My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), wrote of the singing of spirituals:

A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.

Similarly Harriet Tubman recalled that spirituals such as Go Down Moses operated as a code for escaping to the North (quoted in Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1886). Here Jewish and Christian prophecy and Apocalyptic were not tools of oppression, but instruments of liberation. They gave enslaved black people a grammar of aspiration, enabled them to imagine a better place, in the here and now, as well as in the beyond. In the words of another spiritual:

I’ll meet you in the morning

When you reach the promised land

On the other side of the Jordan

For I’m bound for the promised land.

When Martin Luther King delivered his great speech ‘I have a dream’ in 1963 he was drawing on exactly this same tradition, using the Old Testament story of liberation from bondage and arrival in the promised land as a prophecy of the future in which all people of all colours could expect the same justice and equality. When, in Martin Luther King’s words,

all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Is there a better way of remembering slavery than by keeping alive in those spiritual hymns and songs the hope that burned in the hearts of the people in bondage?

(The famous motif by Josiah Wedgewood reproduced here, which became a slogan of the Abolitionist movement, is also regarded as ‘problematic’ since it identifies the black slave, manacled hands raised in supplication, pleading for help from his ‘white saviours’. Many are probably unaware that the fashionable gesture of ‘taking the knee’ replicates this pose, while replacing the clasped hands with the straight arm and clenched fist of the 1960s ‘Black Power’ movement).

This special issue of Critical Survey, edited by Terri Bouros, situates that controversial text into the context of its early publication history, and the recent critical and editorial interest it has generated. The first edition of Hamlet – often called ‘Q1’, shorthand for ‘first quarto’ – was published in 1603, in what we might regard as the early modern equivalent of a cheap paperback. Q1 Hamlet is becoming increasingly canonical not because there is universal agreement about what it is or what it means, but because more and more Shakespearians agree that it is worth arguing about. If we read or perform it, rather than simply dismissing it (as was done for most of the twentieth century), Q1 makes us think: about performance, book history, Shakespeare’s relationships with his contemporaries, and the shape of his whole career.

Death of Wat Tyler, 15 June 1381

On this day in 1381 the leader of the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’, Wat Tyler, was killed in Smithfield. As Labour propose a new ‘garden tax’ in order to dispossess landowners, this extract from Graham Holderness’s Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories recalls the revolt, and shows how the opportunity of reform can be thrown away in the pursuit of violent insurrection.

Mile End, 14 June 1381, Night

Richard by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have manumitted all our liegemen, subjects and others of the county of Kent; and we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by these present letters. Henceforward no man shall be a serf nor make homage nor any kind of service to any lord, but shall give four pence for an acre of land. And no man shall serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant. Henceforward all my subjects shall be free to buy or sell throughout the realm of England. We also pardon our said liege men and subjects for all felonies, acts of treason, transgressions and extortions performed by them or any one of them in whatsoever way. We also withdraw sentences of outlawry declared against them or any of them because of these offences. And we hereby grant our complete peace to them and each of them. In testimony of which we order these letters of ours to be made patent. Witnessed by myself at London on 14 June in the fourth year of my reign.[i]

Sitting under the canvas of a tent, by the light of a fire, Tyler had read the letter a dozen times, studied every clause, pored intensively over the stamp of the Great Seal. Usually, he knew, the king would use his own privy seal. But by Sudbury’s resignation Richard held the Great Seal in his own hands, conferring on these letters the unique and potent joint authority of state and crown, Chancellor and King.

As soon as the royal party had left Mile End, Tyler had taken a troop of Kentishmen and raced towards the Tower. There he found little or no defence, and they were able easily to penetrate the fortress and search for the traitors. They soon discovered Sudbury and Hale, dragged them unceremoniously onto Tower Hill and subjected them to summary execution. The king’s sergeant-at-arms, a physician and a lawyer met the same fate. Tyler had hoped to find John of Gaunt’s son Henry, and to take him hostage; but somehow he had been spirited out of the Tower and away. They chose not to return to the fortress, having no intention of being trapped inside the Tower as the king and court had been. And so Tyler rode to re-join the Essex rebels in their camp at Mile End.

The camp was a carnival of feasting and rejoicing. Word of the king’s concessions had spread through the host, and most of the rebels considered their objectives achieved. They were free; England was free; the young King was a true king. Who are you with? With King Richard and the true Commons!

But Tyler was gnawing at his lower lip. It had been too easy. He would like to have suspected treachery, but the letters patent lay undeniably in his hand, signed by the King, carrying the wax impression of the Great Seal.[ii] Absolute, ultimate, irrevocable. Why then was he dissatisfied? Had they not realised their vision, the dream of John Ball, a free people in a free realm?

No, he thought to himself. It cannot be so. The nobles still possess their lands, the rich their wealth, the powerful their armies. The people may be free to work and trade, buy, and sell, but still there was no equality. Sooner or later those in power would find new ways of oppressing the poor.

We have to cut deeper. We must have more than freedom; we must have power. Where does power lie? In land, in the law, in armies. The people had shown they could raise an army, and take London by force. They had shown they could wrest the law to their own ends, by executing the enemies of the people. But they had no land.

There had been a balancing, but not a reversal. The commons must expropriate the land, or they would never be truly free. All land to the commons. Agriculture, commerce, government, the military, all must be taken into public ownership. All power to the people. We will have a king bound by constitution to rule on behalf of the people. Or better still, no king at all, but a republic, ruled by a senate. Senatus atque Populus Anglicus. The Senate and the people of England.

‘How goes it, Wat?’ asked John Ball. ‘You are pensive and pale. What ails you, my man?’

‘The battle is won’, Tyler said, ‘but not the war. We must force the king to forfeit the land, to take it away from the lords and the church. All land to the commons. If he countermands, then we shall depose him, and throw down his throne. A council of the Commons shall rule in his stead’.

‘But he is our king!’ protested Jack Straw.

‘And what does it mean, to be our king? What do you mean by it, you, Jack Straw? The king who binds us in fealty’s fetters? The king to whom homage we’re forced to pay? The king to whom basely we bend the knee? If truly our king, he belongs to us: he is our creature; our puppet; our servant. We need a king to do our bidding, against the nobles, against the church. A king who’ll oppose all those who oppress us’.  

‘A King of kindness, liberty, love’, came the dreamy voice of John Ball. ‘Who will bring us back to the golden age. Back to the garden; back to God. As the prophets sang: ‘a little child shall lead them there’’.

‘Too far you go, man’, cried Straw to Tyler. ‘Miles too far. This follow a fantasy. Damn you, the only end to this, is death to all’. 

Tyler leaned over and seized Straw by the cloak, his white face incandescent in the firelight, his wild black eyes staring like those of a madman. ‘All power to the people’, he gabbled feverishly. ‘All land to the commons. If you are not with us, you are against us. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. Now the time is come. Now the time is come. Now the time is …’.

‘Back to Essex I mean to take my men’, interrupted Jack Straw. ‘Now. Tonight. This is folly, and follow we will not. It is not for this that we have fought’.

Tyler leapt to his feet, pushed Straw aside and stood in the doorway of the tent. ‘Send word to the king. On the morrow we’ll meet him. There is more to be said’. He thought for a moment. ‘Close to the city. Smithfield. Quickly, send’.


[i] The text is the letter issued by Richard to the men of Hertfordshire, and copied into Walsingham’s Chronica. See R.B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970) 180-1.[i]

[ii] See Juliet Barker, England, Arise: the People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 (London: Little, Brown, 2014) 256.

Kalen Ockerman, ‘The Enemy of Humanity’

This notorious anti-Semitic mural continues to haunt the Labour leadership, as more and more senior members are exposed as having endorsed or admired it. The mural features in this extract from Graham Holderness’s forthcoming Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories, in which a young butcher undergoes radicalization and eventually joins ISIS.

It was a Saturday night. After their evening meal the boys would usually wander along the canal to Camden Lock, and meet up with a group of their compatriots. Together they would walk around the streets and estates, smoking cigarettes, looking at girls, or kicking a football around in an empty school playground. There was a certain aimlessness to these activities, and at school Tariq had found himself envying the Saturday nights of his white school-fellows, who would look forward all week with growing excitement to a night of drunkenness and sex. This troubled him a little, but after a while there were no more white kids at the school, so the temptations of alterity were no longer there.

This night was destined to be different.

‘Come on’, said Yusef, wiping his plate clean with a piece of bread. ‘We’ve got an appointment’.

Together they walked down the road. The fabric shops were closing, the grocers still optimistically staying open. The air was thick with the spices of Indian cooking: hot oil, turmeric, garlic. Tariq paused for a minute by a huge mural that decorated a blank brick wall. He had often studied it, and rarely passed without another admiring glance. Seated in a semi-circle, staring towards the viewer, were six figures, with a large flat board spread before them. The square surface was marked out as a kind of board game, at its centre a pile of green American dollars. Among the counters were miniatures of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Gherkin, monuments of western capitalism.

A global game of money and power. The board rested on the painfully bent backs of a circle of bald, brown-skinned men; and the faces of the players displayed the enlarged noses, grey beards and heavy moustaches of cartoon Jews. Above them the artist had depicted, in lurid colours, images of industry: chimneys and cooling-towers venting black smoke, a sky lit by the orange glow of blast-furnaces. Below them, metal cog-wheels intersected to symbolise the global economic system, driven by greed and racial hatred, run over the backs of the prostrate brown masses.

On either side appeared emblems of resistance. ‘The New World Order is the Enemy of Humanity’ proclaimed a slogan on a placard held up by shouting figure in paramilitary fatigues, his right hand raised in a clenched fist salute. On the other side was the face of an oriental woman, a dark-eyed and heavy-lipped beauty, holding a baby whose skinny little arm was also raised in clenched defiance. Gazing down at this scene from above was the great all-seeing eye, set in the apex of a pyramid, Tariq had seen on US dollars: the eye of global surveillance.

The New World Order. The godless, materialistic West, allied with the Jews, playing games of money and power on the bent backs of the brown-skinned masses. Tariq took a parting glance at the baby. Weak, vulnerable, yet charged with an indomitable spirit. Suckled on the milk of jihad; born into resistance. Then he ran to catch up with his brother, who was already further down the street.


I remember a time when British culture among the educated was thoroughly European. Everyone listened to French music, wore Italian clothes, watched European films, smoked French cigarettes, drank German beer and French and Italian wine. Everyone owned a fondu set, and burned their mouths on hot melted cheese. At school I studied French, German and (unsuccessfully) Russian; read Dante in Italian and Flaubert in French. People started to holiday in Spain and Portugal (no visa required), following the men of my father’s generation, who had virtually all visited Europe (visa-free) in less salubrious circumstances, but to the considerable benefit of European citizens. I lodged a French student in my house, and looked after a group of Germans on a study-abroad programme. I was the first member of my family to travel to Europe, on an educational visit, and without a military uniform and a rifle.

When were these halcyon days of European harmony? In the late 1960s and early 1970s: before the UK joined the EU.

The point of this wander down memory lane is that there are more ways of being European than belonging to the EU. The UK was European before the EU, and will remain European outside it.

Indeed, to claim Shakespeare as ‘European’ could provide no better illustration of the possibilities of cultural reciprocity and symbiosis without economic and political union. If it was possible to be as European as Shakespeare was 400 years ago, then European-ness can scarcely be identified with membership of the European Union.  

Let’s remind ourselves that shortly before Shakespeare’s birth Britain exited from Europe. It was partly in resistance to limits on national sovereignty – taxes, tributes, foreign political interference – that Henry VIII effected his break with Rome, or ‘Brexit 1535’ (strictly speaking this should be ‘England-exit’, but ‘Exit’ is pretty meaningless). In my book The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Books, 2016) I argued that Shakespeare was as much a product of the English Reformation as he was of the European Renaissance.

Shakespeare was thoroughly European, international and global. He was steeped in European culture, especially that of Italy, where a third of his plays are set. He may well have spoken Italian, and read Boccaccio and Bandello for himself; and he knew enough French to make fun of the language in Henry V. He knew at least small Latin, and less Greek. His scenes are set in Italy, France, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Greece: VeronaMessina, Rome, Venice, ViennaRoussillonNavarreSicilyBohemiaPadua, Ephesus, Athens, Troy. His sources were European: Homer, Ovid, Plutarch, the Italian novella. His characters are often strangers lost in another country – Viola, Perdita, Imogen. He wrote sympathetically of European minorities, such as Jews and Moors in Venice. In the section of Sir Thomas More thought to have been written by Shakespeare, Londoners are condemned for attacking ‘strangers’  from other countries. Everyone is a foreigner outside his or her own borders:

Go you to France and Flanders

To any German province, Spain or Portugal,

Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,

Why you must needs be strangers.

Shakespeare probably wrote this while lodging with an expatriate family of French Huguenots, the Mountjoys, in Silver Street: exactly the kind of migrant workers deserving, according to Shakespeare’s More, of London’s protection.

But these Protestant refugees were living and working in London because they had fled from religious persecution in Europe, and were welcomed by the English state, on grounds of religious affinity and economic utility, if not unanimously by the common people. Then, as now, London offered these refugees from Europe shelter, protection, freedom of worship, economic opportunity; and in return they contributed to the economic boom triggered by the ‘fiscal stimulus’ of expenditure following Henry VIII’s confiscation of church property. Under an ‘Australian-style points system’ they would have scored highly. Yes, Shakespeare’s lodging with the Mountjoys is an illustration of his own cosmopolitanism. But it is also a story of a family turning its back on a European project that had become oppressive and constrictive, and instead integrating into a new, successful Protestant nation-state.

The Calvinist Mountjoy household provided Shakespeare with a congenial cultural space as well as a comfortable lodging. He increasingly made use of the Geneva Bible, and his later plays converged on the Protestant Christianity of the Book of Common Prayer. When Hamlet delivers his famous line ’there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ he is literally quoting Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (‘speciali Dei providentia’). Luther and Calvin were also European, and the Protestant Reformation was a European movement. But one of its effects was to engender national churches, seeded by European ideas, but flowering within the native soil of the nation-state. Such was the Church of England to which Shakespeare belonged, and which remains both a global and a local institution, a world-wide communion, yet always rooted in a particular parish. The Christian language through which Shakespeare absorbed his religion – not just from the Bible, but from the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies – was not the Latin of the Roman Church, but the language in which he spoke, thought and wrote – English.

Shakespeare’s faith, like that of Elizabeth I herself, probably resembled was what we now call ‘Anglo-Catholicism’, a hybrid of diverse European influences. But it was the faith of a Protestant church. It was national, as well as international; the faith of the Geneva Bible, but also the faith of the English Book of Common Prayer.

Graham Holderness, The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Hudson in November 2016).

An Anglo-Saxon tomb near Southend, between a pub and a supermarket, has been excavated to reveal a noble burial with treasure-hoard. Read a translation of Beowulf’s funeral from the English epic.

BEOWULF’S FUNERAL

They gathered the gear then, those Geats in their grieving,

To pile up a pyre, high-up and heavenward,

Hanging with helmets, shiny with shield-boards,

The brightest of byrnies, just as he’d bade.

Then weeping those warriors laid him upon it,

So famous a fighter, the lord they had loved.

Quickly they kindled a blaze on that barrow,

Fuelled a fire of baleful flame. Up went the woodsmoke,

Black on the brightness. Windswept and woven

With woe and with weeping, till the blaze in its

Burning bored through his breastbone

And hissed at his heart. High on the headland

The Wederas wrought him

A tomb on the topmost, where sailors could see it,

Wide on the waves. Ten days and ten nights

They were building that beacon, the battle-chief’s ashes

To shore in a shelter, as clever a construction

As any you’d come across, among the most artful

Makings of men. Then brooches to the barrow,

And rings they restored, such trinkets and trappings

As foes had filched from the well-hidden hoard.

Earth they endowed with the treasure of heroes

To have in its hold, the gold with the grit,

Where it stops still; useless to us

As ever it were.

From Graham Holderness, Craeft: Poems from the Anglo-Saxon (Shoestring Press, 2002).

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.