The Picaresque
Faint Praise (Edith Wharton, Willa Cather

The Stratford Man

The most important argument James Shapiro makes in his book Contested Will is not that the author of Shakespeare's plays and poems is William Shakespeare (the "Stratford man")--anyone who honestly examines both the evidence for Shakespeare's authorship and the evidence for all of the rival candidates (most notably the Earl of Oxford) can only conclude there is no reason to doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare--but that the whole controversy over authorship has arisen because of the assumption held by so many people that a writer's work is a reflection, direct or indirect, of that writer's life.

Of course, the work is a reflection of the life, in the trivial sense that writers have only their life experiences (including what they've read or imagined) to lean on in producing the work, but the assumption goes farther than this: Events in the work recapitulate events in the life, social circumstances determine both manner and matter. Writers don't just write from their lives, they write about it, and the work can't escape its biographical influences. Once this logic is generally accepted (as Shapiro demonstrates it did under the dominance of Romanticism), it almost becomes inevitable that the "facts" of Shakespeare's life, so mundane as they generally are, become irreconcilable with the extraordinary occurrences in the plays and with the great verbal facility manifest there and in the sonnets. The poorly educated glover's son from Stratford, whose experiences apparently extended no farther than this provincial town and the London theaters, could never have written the great work attributed to him. As Shapiro puts it,

The extent to which so much that now gets written is autobiographical can easily alter the expectations we bring to all kinds of imaginative writing. We now assume that novels necessarily reveal something about a writer's life. . .At the same time, many literary biographies are supplanting the fictional works they are meant to illuminate, to the point where Ariel and The Bell Jar struggle to find a readership that books about Sylvia Plath's suicide now command. In such a climate, it's hard not to assume that literary works--of the past no less than of the present--are inescapably autobiographical.

This has been a blessing for those who deny Shakespeare's authorship, whose claims stand or fall on the core belief that literature is, and always has been, autobiographical. . . .

Thus, the authorship "controversy" is a fiction dreamed up out of a suspicion of fiction the creation of which would seem to be the writer's first task.

If anything, the distorting effects of the belief that fiction is just autobiography slightly altered are even more widespread than Shapiro suggests. Not only are biographies making claims on readers' time that would more appropriately be spent on the subjects' work, but biography has become about the only writing about literature to be reviewed in print book review sections, and, coupled with the focus in academic criticism on sociology and culture, is really the only kind of literature-centered commentary available to interested readers. New biographies are lauded or dismissed according to their capacity to explain "how he did it"--as if appreciating the process of literary creation is more important than appreciating the creation itself. Even this is just a barely disguised desire for a more elevated form of gossip, which is finally and unavoidably the stock-in-trade of all biography and almost always emerges as the contribution a biography makes to the "understanding" of its subject.

That this fascination with the life lived by the author over the purely literary implications of the work can be traced to the rise of Romanticism surely can't mean that Romanticism itself is responsible for the reduction of literature to an illustration of autobiography, recoverable through the research of the biographer. Although Shapiro convincingly maintains that the notion of reading autobiography into an author's work was alien to the literary culture of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, it's hard to believe that audiences had no interest in the personal details of playwrights' or poets' lives, that the drama-filled life of, say, Christopher Marlowe attracted no attention. Curiosity about other people's lives (real people, not just the "people" depicted in literary works) must surely be a long-standing and universal human characteristic.

But while fiction and drama exploit this curiosity by depicting the lives of imagined people, it is apparently difficult to convince all readers that the integrity of narrative art depends on granting the imagination a free rein. Presumptions that the novelist or dramatist is "really" writing about some real person, including possibly himself, betrays either a distrust in the imagination, a suspicion it promises more than it can deliver, or outright disdain for it as the foundation of literary narrative. This explains the current infatuation with memoir among American readers (and the increase in writers willing to provide it) and the dogged persistence of the Shakespeare deniers. Of course, not all readers who delight in the disguises of the roman a clef or thrill to the juicy memoir are going to be led by their preferences to doubt that Shakespeare among all writers had a vigorous imagination, but the authorship controversy is of a piece with the more general impatience with the transformative role of imagination.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly, given his background as a New Historicist), one of the readers who seems skeptical of Shakespeare's imagination is the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, whose 2004 book, Will in the World, attempts to fashion a biography of Shakespeare by attending closely to echoes and suggestions in the work. Greenblatt's knowledge of Shakespeare, his times, and his plays, is immense, but he unfortunately deploys that knowledge to reinforce connections between the life and the work. Shapiro writes of Will in the World that it

gave [the autobiographical thesis] the seal of approval of the leading American Shakespearean of the day. Greenblatt admits straightaway that 'the whole impulse to explore Shakespeare's life arises from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.' Rather that consider what historical developments gave rise to this conviction, he focuses instead on how firsthand experience can be retrieved from Shakespeare's surviving works, allowing extraordinary access into the poet's desires and anxieties.

I think Shapiro is being rather reticent in criticizing Greenblatt's project. In trying to show that the work actually does confirm Shakespeare's experiences as its source, he only winds up giving support to the assumptions that made the authorship controversy possible. Greenblatt too underestimates the reach of imagination. Why couldn't the primary thing Shakespeare "knew firsthand" be the capabilities of his own imagination? Why couldn't "body and soul" simply be the springs of that imagination? Why isn't this enough?


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