Who was William Shakespeare, really? What was he like as a person? George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “everything we know about Shakespeare can be got into a half-hour sketch,” but if you limit yourself to verifiable facts about his life, a half-hour is too long. We don’t have anything in his handwriting beyond his signature and a few scant pages of revisions to the collaboratively written Sir Thomas More. We lack original drafts of his scripts. We are missing any books he may have owned. We don’t even know for sure on what day he was born, nor are we absolutely certain whether his wife’s last name was Hathaway or Whateley, or whether her first name was Anne or Anna or Agnes. For Shakespeare, the kinds of sources that biographers rely on either never existed, are lost, or, in the case of his famous will, might be corrupted. Much of what we think we know of the Bard’s life is handed down from tradition and based on the first biography of him, written by Nicholas Rowe nearly a century after his death.
Into this vacuum of knowable fact have rushed innumerable biographical studies of the Bard; an Amazon search for “Shakespeare biography” returns more than 4,000 results, many of which bear no more relationship to their subject’s actual life than the film Shakespeare in Love. Biographies of Shakespeare often end up—like the Oxfordian conspiracy theories they rightfully mock—building their assertions upon a latticework of maybes and perhapses and must haves that suddenly, a few pages later, become dids. The end results can be illuminating, though mostly of the biases, interests, and quirks of their writers. The better ones—in particular, Jonathan Bate’s dazzling Soul of the Age, a biography of Shakespeare’s mind—know that pinning the Bard down is impossible. They instead place what we know of Shakespeare in counterpoint with both his plays and his time, illuminating all three in unconventional ways.
The Shakespeare Circle, a new anthology of biographical essays about important people from Shakespeare’s life edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, aims to fill in as much of the space surrounding Shakespeare as possible, so that a clearer outline of WS’s shape can emerge. In the book’s 25 portraits, we meet everyone from Shakespeare’s parents and siblings, to his wife and children, to his business partners, writing partners, theatrical partners, patrons, editors, and London landlords. The central problem, of course, is that in many of these cases (particularly the women and Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died at age 11) we know even less about them than we do about Shakespeare. The shapes surrounding our emerging outline are themselves often mysterious and, as many of the people are interconnected, contradictory from article to article.
Yet an outline emerges nonetheless. Over the course of the book, we come to see a Shakespeare devoted to his family—or at least his family name—and to enlarging its place at Stratford. We get a glimpse of his thrift, and lack of dedication to his adopted London, in his peripatetic renter’s life there. We get to know his friendship with Ben Jonson, who is something like the Salieri to his Amadeus, and some of his uncredited collaborators, including George Wilkins, the violent pimp who wrote the first two acts of Pericles. And, through a brilliant essay by the University of Roehampton’s Andy Kesson, we come to understand why, during Shakespeare’s early career, other playwrights felt so threatened by him, and why they wrote of him as a crowd-pleasing lightweight.
Kesson’s essay on Shakespeare’s early collaborators in the theater is the most essential in the volume, provoking a new understanding of the infamous 1592 pamphlet Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. Groatsworth, attributed to playwright Robert Greene but likely ghost-written, savaged an early-career Shakespeare as a “peasant” and “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers” who possesses a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide,” a reference to Shakespeare’s own Henry VI, Part III, which describes Queen Margaret in nearly identical terms. In the typical reading of Groatsworth, the author is complaining that Shakespeare is a hick from the sticks, doesn’t have the right education, and has the audacity to beautify his plays with the feathers of courtly style while being, in truth, as base and vicious as a tiger. This has led some scholars to feel defensive of Shakespeare to the point of outright hostility toward the Groatsworth (one scholar even compared it to a rape of the Bard).
Kesson’s take instead firmly places both Groatsworth and Shakespeare in the context of their time, a time in which the word playwright did not yet exist and the first real theaters had just been built. Shakespeare, according to Kesson, represented a changing of the guard away from “a generation of theatre practitioners … for whom the playhouses were completely new,” to “another … who had grown up as the playhouses opened.” To them, Shakespeare “was an oddity.” Kesson demands that we see Groatsworth as its contemporaries would have, as a response to a still-unproven actor-turned-writer who was largely employed in rewriting the plays of the very writers he was about to supersede and whose only original work thus far was the Henry VI trilogy.
Kesson’s isn’t the only revisionist take in The Shakespeare Circle, which in general assumes a reader versed in Shakespeare’s life and major works who has read at least one other biography of him. Bart Van Es argues that Shakespeare’s shift in actors from Will Kemp, whose clowning style birthed Bottom in Midsummer, to Robert Armin, whose literate wit inflects Touchstone in As You Like It and the Fool in King Lear, may not have come by Shakespeare freezing Kemp out of the company, but because Kemp realized he could make more money touring Europe. David Fallow uses Elizabethan business and tax regulations to make the case that Shakespeare’s father, John, may have been a successful and canny businessman, instead of the debt-riddled failure he’s often assumed to be. If this is true, Fallow muses, Shakespeare’s “lost years” (the time from age 21–28 we know nothing about) could simply be an apprenticeship in his father’s business, and he may have gone to London initially on his father’s behalf. Katherine Scheil points out in her chapter on Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, that the documentary evidence for their supposedly unhappy marriage is very thin and that we are left with “a complex web of knowledge” and a “haunting sense of absence in the archives about this enigmatic woman.”
The weakest of the revisionists is Germaine Greer, whose chapter on Shakespeare’s younger daughter, Judith, and her husband, Thomas Quiney, is essentially historical fiction. Greer has no concrete evidence to support her assertions that Judith met Thomas because she was in service in his house, or that Thomas trained as a vintner, or that Thomas impregnating another woman “gave Judith a chance. I imagine that [Thomas’s mother] simply asked Judith to put Thomas out of Wheeler’s reach by marrying him.” She even says that Shakespeare made “a settlement” with John Hall, Judith’s brother-in-law, “that made her elder sister Shakespeare’s sole heir,” before revealing three pages later that this idea, which serves as the foundation for much of her entire chapter, is “supposition.”
Fortunately, most of the rest of the scholarship is not so dubious. Often, the joys of reading The Shakespeare Circle can be found as much in how the writers come to their conclusions as in the conclusions themselves. The writers circle the same scant pieces of documentary evidence (the will with its “second best bed” as Anne Hathaway’s only bequest, two lawsuits, Jonson’s writings about Shakespeare, three epitaphs, Greene’s Groatsworth) again and again, as if they are hawks looking for any morsel of truth that can be found. They explore tree-ring dating, controversies over the town vicarage in Stratford, theater regulations, publishing business practices, land enclosure laws, and the history of English medicine. The result is an illuminating series of investigative portraits of everyday Elizabethans who just happened to know the greatest writer in the English language.
Shakespeare took great care in ensuring a legacy of property, money, and name that would live beyond him, yet his family line ends within a few generations. While this is disputed, he appears to have taken little care to preserve his artistic legacy, yet this has proven immortal. This irony suffuses even the driest of The Shakespeare Circle’s chapters with a palpable longing, for both their ostensible subjects and for the ultimate subject of the Bard himself. Graham Holderness’ beautiful essay on Hamnet Shakespeare best articulates this feeling, as he searches for evidence of Hamnet in Shakespeare’s own writing: “Here we find at once the most intimate, yet the most remote of contingencies; the most irresistible, but the most inconclusive of connections.” The Shakespeare Circle is filled with these intimate, remote contingencies and irresistible, inconclusive connections. Like Orlando wandering the Forest of Arden for some glimpse of his Rosalind in As You Like It, the scholars featured in The Shakespeare Circle know their subjects are just out of reach but can’t stop searching for them anyway. Unlike in that play, their quarries will never be found; as with all of Shakespeare’s comedies of love, the hunt itself is what matters.
The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge University Press.
See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.