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.
“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)
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’:
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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’.
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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)
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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Border: Shakespeare Biography, Academic Celebrity, and the Reception of Will in the
World”. Borrowers and Lenders 2(2), n.p.
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World, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Spectator, 9
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by Stephen Greenblatt. Times
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