Thursday, 30 September 1999

S. Schoenbaum: Shakespeare's Lives (1970)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1979
Review number: 343

One of the big problems with Shakespearean scholarship is that so little is known about the man who wrote the plays and poetry. His life is almost a complete blank, the major documentary evidence provided by occasional legal documents in which he is mentioned for one reason or another. Many of these documents were unknown before the second half of the nineteenth century or even later, and the background (knowledge of, say, the financial arrangements through which early seventeenth century theatre existed) less well understood than they are today.

The lack of knowledge combined with an extreme reverence for the works themselves proved a fertile incentive for the invention and elaboration of traditions and theories, culminating in the attribution of the plays to other hands entirely. It is the history of these traditions which forms the subject of Schoenbaum's famous book.

Schoenbaum has a rather enjoyably caustic style, dismissive of the more baseless fantasies. Some of these are pretty laughable, such as those which "prove" that Shakespeare spent part of his life following the same profession as the fantasist - a sailor, for example, wrote a book describing how Shakespeare ran away from home at 13 to sign on as the cabin boy on Drake's famous trip around the world, and carried on a sailing career until wrecked on the shores of Illyria years later. The only evidence for this sort of suggestion is the unimaginative idea that everything Shakespeare wrote about must relate to his own experience; the whole thing springs from a desire to remake Shakespeare in the image of his admirer.

Schoenbaum has more sympathy for those whose 'bardolatry' took them beyond the bounds of sanity, including the rather pitiful forger William Henry Ireland. Ludicrous though his work may seem, it would not be right to deride someone clearly not at all normal mentally.

His most acid dismissals are reserved for those who suggested that other people wrote the plays of Shakespeare. This is inspired by a species of bardolatry, the feeling that the person who wrote the plays must have been more eminent than Shakespeare. Many candidates have been put forward, including Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I (both dead when most of the plays were first performed), and a committee of eminent Elizabethans, but the most widely espoused causes are those of Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Schoenbaum describes these theories as madness, taking passing delight in the fact that the Oxfordian theory was first put forward by a man named Looney. Certainly, there doesn't seem much to recommend either idea, particularly when connected, as they often are, with some of the more outlandish speculation in another field that has generated much Shakespearean rubbish, the identities of Mr W.H., the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet from the Sonnets. The cryptoanalytical side of the theories (Bacon hiding sentences proving his authorship, or even explaining that he is the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex in the works) is the sort of meaningless speculation common to the sort of esotericism caricatured by Eco in Foucault's Pendulum. Arguments identical to the Baconian cryptology have been advanced in attempts to ridicule the idea, to show, for example, that the works were written by prominent nineteenth century figures.

There is little to criticise about this book. Schoenbaum gives credit where it is due, and its opposite where that is due; no writer is perfect or all bad. His writing is clear, and his critical appraisal of each writer he describes easy to understand. In reading the second edition, I rather miss what has now been left out to make room for an expansion of other material, a discussion of Shakespeare's role in fiction. In the year of Shakespeare in Love, this would have been most interesting to read.


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Andrea said...

"both dead when most of the plays were first performed" does not mean that the plays weren't written well before they were dead. BTW, what do you have against education? Why do you want to insist that an uneducated man wrote the canon of "Shakespeare?" All evidence points to his illiteracy. I think the statfordians are living a fantasists.

Simon McLeish said...

Where to start...

a) I didn't mention education in my post. So you can't speculate on my attitude to education. Given that I was in full time education until I was 24, have a degree and a doctorate, have worked in academia most of the rest of my life, I don't have anything at all against education.

b) Shakespeare can hardly be said to be uneducated, with a grammar school education that would (if he paid attention) give him a good knowledge of the classics. Even if he had not been a particularly good student, it seems unlikely that he would have finished that kind of schooling unable to read.

c) True, it is possible that the plays could have been written well before they were performed, but to me that seems unlikely - something that would need evidence and explanation. Almost all dramatists wrote for fairly immediate performance.