Shakespeare biography

I am off to the new International Society for Cultural History’s inaugural conference in Ghent today. I will be chairing a session on culture and value by the PhD students of the Dutch Huizinga Institute, and presenting a paper called “Living Theory: Shakespeare Biography and Cultural History.” It is a topic rather unrelated to my current research, inspired by the call for papers that (among other things) asked after the relation between biography and cultural history. I post the working version of my paper below – if you have comments, I would love to hear them, because I am due to present it on Friday afternoon.

[I have updated this paper to include editing changes I made on the train to Ghent. The paper stands here as I delivered it at the conference. I would of course still love to hear your comments.]


Paper for Orientations. Inaugural Conference of the International Society for Cultural History, Ghent University, Belgium, 29 August, 2008.

William Shakespeare is a notoriously elusive character. Biographers can rely on a collection of legal documents and the plays he wrote, but Shakespeare’s life, his feelings and his personality are not well documented. This has not kept biographers from attempting to capture Shakespeare’s life in writing. Quite the contrary – the Shake­speare biography is booming. Here are a handful of publications from the last four years .

In this paper, my focus will be on Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004). Stephen Greenblatt, of course, is a  pivotal scholar in the new historicism. The purpose of this paper is not to unearth the small factual errors in Greenblatt’s biography, or to scrutinize his speculations about Shake­speare’s Catholic sympathies, but to find out how Will in the World relates to Greenblatt’s earlier work; what the new historicism brings to the genre of biography, but also, and most pressingly, what the genre of biography tells us about the new historicism. In this light, I will then compare Greenblatt’s biography to James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005).

The new historicism is a critical movement that examines literary texts in their historical context, and uses literary methods of analysis to scrutinize the rhetorical construction of history. In the words of Louis Montrose, it aims to grasp the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. Especially in its early stages, the new historicism was criticized for its all too monolithic view of the operations of power, in which it left too little room for individual agency. In this paper, I will focus on this problematics, since the biography, which – intrinsically – needs to give shape to the relation between the individual on the one hand, and discursive structures on the other, provides an interesting case study to re-examine these issues in Greenblatt’s latest work.

In the preface to Will in the World Greenblatt tells us that:

This is a book […] about an amazing success story that has resisted explanation: it aims to discover the actual person who wrote the most important body of imaginative 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. (Will in the World, 12)

The desire to find out “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare” as the book’s title puts it, the desire to discover how literary genius works is central to this biography. In his Shakespearean Negotiations, first published in 1988, in a chapter that opens with the now famous words “I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” Greenblatt asked this very question about literary genius before. There, he wanted to know how so much life got into the textual traces of Shakespeare’s plays. He wrote that “there can be no appeals to genius as the sole origin of the energies of great art.” (12). “The agents of exchange may appear to be individuals, but individuals are themselves the products of collective exchange” (12). And: “one dreams of finding an originary moment, a moment in which the master hand shapes the concentrated social energy into the sublime aesthetic object. But the quest is fruitless, for there is no originary moment, no pure act of untrammeled creation.” Rather, Greenblatt searched for the half-hidden cultural transactions, the circulation of social energy, through which great works of art are empowered. He concluded that it was a mistake to imagine that in speaking with the dead, he would hear a single voice: “[I]f I wanted to hear one, I had to hear the many voices of the dead” (20).

In Will in the World, however, Greenblatt does seem to be listening for that single voice. That is not to say that the biography does not devote attention to the circulation of social energy. To the contrary, the book is filled with information on the religious, political and social contexts of Shakespeare’s works. We are told about Catholicism in early modern England; the position of Jews in Shakespeare’s time, life in a country town, the world of the theatre and much more. The way in which the biography uses these contexts, however, is different from Greenblatt’s earlier work. Two examples will hopefully show what I mean.

The first example is a tiny passage from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both in Shakespearean Negotiations and in his work on resonance and wonder, Greenblatt uses the passage to demonstrate how Shakespeare’s plays negotiate social energy. In the passage the Fairy King Oberon blesses the marriage beds of three couples:

With this field-dew consecrate
Every fairy take his gait
And each several chamber bless
Through this palace with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blessed
Ever shall in safety rest. (MND, 5.1.415-20)

This passage provides a beautiful example of the ways in which a ritual is moved from one cultural zone to another. The ceremony performed here is an allusion to the Catholic blessing of the bride-bed with holy water, a ceremony that had been banned from English life since the Reformation. Shakespeare’s play picks up this abandoned ritual, and turns it into theatrical representation. In doing so,

[I]t naturalizes the ritual by transforming the specifically sanctified water into ordinary dew; it denaturalizes the ritual by removing it from human agents and attributing it to the fairies; it mocks Catholic practice by associating it with notorious superstition and then by enacting it on the stage where it is revealed as a histrionic illusion; and it celebrates such practice by reinvesting it with the charismatic magic of the theater. (“Resonance and Wonder,” 219-20)

This appropriation of holy water, then, has complex effects on perceptions of the Catholic ritual as well as theatrical practice. In most of his work Greenblatt is interested in such transactions: he wants to know what happens when the theatre appropriates objects, ideas or gestures from a different cultural zone.

In Will in the World, Greenblatt returns to the ritual of the blessing of the marriage beds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the biography, the passage is referred to in a chapter on Shakespeare’s lost years. Following the work of Richard Wilson and Michael Wood, among others, Greenblatt suggests that Shakespeare may have spent these lost years with a Catholic family in Lancashire. The chapter’s title, “The Great Fear,” stresses that it was dangerous business to be a Catholic in Protestant Elizabethan England. “Will would have lived a life of secrets,” Greenblatt suggests, and turns to the blessing ritual in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to illustrate the presence of Catholic traces in his work. The plays are not used to demonstrate that Shakespeare was a Catholic, but to give us an insight into the ways in which Shakespeare uses a sly blend of displacement and appropriation in his plays: the passage shows Shake­speare’s genius at work. Oberon’s words are shown to originate in Shakespeare’s formative years spent in a Catholic environment. Whereas Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations claimed that there are no such originary moments, the very passage that illustrated the operations of social energy in his earlier work | is here used to gain access to the operations of Shakespeare’s mind. This recycling of a passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream leads to questions about the role of individual lives in the circulation of social energy. I will return to this question later; first I would like to give you a second example.

In his Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), Greenblatt presented a wonderful theological recontextualisation of the ghost in Hamlet. In the play, the dead King’s ghost tells his son that he is: “confined to fast in fires, | Till the foul crimes, done in my days of nature, | Are burn’d and purg’d away” (Hamlet, 1.5.11-13). These words seem to refer to Purgatory, a conception of the afterlife that, like the blessing ritual, had been banned by the Protestant church after the Reformation. In Hamlet in Purgatory, Greenblatt explores the history of purgatory in English culture, and shows how it offered a way to intervene in the fate of the dead. This desire to interact with the dead did not disappear after the Reformation, and Shakespeare appeals to it, transforming the rituals in his famous revenge tragedy where the stage convention of revenge becomes a way to appease the dead. The play thus offers the audience an alternative narrative of speaking with the dead, one that appropriates the desires that are no longer fulfilled by the concept of Purgatory.

In Will in the World, this idea returns in a chapter called “Speaking With the Dead,” which centres on Hamlet. The chapter argues that the “deep wound” left by the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet in 1596 must be the source for Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, written around 1600, since the two names, he says, are “virtually interchangeable” (311). He then changes track, because the play is not about the death of a son, but the death of a father. “Something must have made the playwright link the loss of his child to the imagined loss of his father,” Greenblatt writes (he uses the phrase imagined loss, because Shakespeare’s father was not as yet dead in 1600). I won’t mention the fact that there were in fact source texts for Hamlet which handed him this idea of a dead father on a silver platter, because I would like to make a different point, a point about the individual artist and the circulation of social energy. Greenblatt links Hamlet’s father to Shakespeare’s father, because both have been associated with Catholicism, the one through his reference to purgatory; the other because of a Catholic spiritual testament that was found in the rafters of Shakespeare’s birthplace in the eighteenth century. Greenblatt himself acknowledges that the authenticity of this document is contested, but that does not keep him from presenting the theory that Shakespeare must still have been brooding over the afterlife, lost rituals, and his father’s Catholicism:

Shakespeare drew upon the pity, confusion and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals […] because he himself experienced those same emotions at the core of his being. He experienced them in 1596, at the funeral of his child, and he experienced them with redoubled force in anticipation of his father’s death. He responded not with prayers but with the deepest expression of his being: Hamlet.

As in the case of the blessing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a key idea from an earlier new historicist work is here used as a way into Shakespeare’s inner emotional life and his creative processes. The ghost in Hamlet is no longer primarily the product of the circulation of social energy or half-hidden cultural transactions, but finds its origins in the deep emotional wound left by the death of Shakespeare’s son, as well as his worries about his Catholic father’s coming death. In Will in the World, then, passages from Shakespeare’s work that Greenblatt previously used to evoke a sense of resonance, are now primarily used to evoke a sense of wonder about the creative genius of Shakespeare’s imagination. The opportunity offered by the genre of biography to accommodate the role of individual life in the circulation of social energy seems to result in amateur psychology in which the life of the author is found in the work.

Is a biography of an individual life perhaps irreconcilable with Greenblatt’s earlier practice of new historicism? The Dutch cultural historian Willem Frijhoff in an article on historical biography implied this might be the case: “The importance of contextualisation has definitely been proven” he writes. “The key question, however, is whether a biographical approach is the most effective tool to use.” [1]

An example of a biographical approach that does work effectively in this sense, is James Shapiro’s 1599. In this book, Shapiro wished to elude the familiar desire to answer the question of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare by locating the spring of his genius in his formative experiences (xviii). He therefore decided not to write a “cradle to grave” biography, but to focus a single year, 1599. Also, he describes the cultural, historical, political, literary and religious contexts that shaped his work, and steers clear of telling us how Shakespare might have felt about the events of that year. Shapiro relates Hamlet, for example, not to Shakespeare’s feelings on the death of Hamnet or his father, but to the Earl of Essex and the loss of chivalric culture, or to inwardness in the essays of Bacon and Montaigne. This form of micro-biography allows him to present a contextualised life, a book that explores the resonance of the dynamic cultural, political and religious context of one year in Shakespeare’s life. [2] By focusing on all these contexts, however, it also leaves little room for individual agency and the agency of individual plays.

Alastair Fowler, who wrote a damning review of Greenblatt’s Will in the World in the TLS, unwittingly offered another way in which the genre of biography could serve the purposes of the new historicism. Fowler commented that the “Elizabethan homilies were not written by the impersonal “central authorities” [as Greenblatt calls them]. One [homily],” he remarks, “was [written] by Edmund Grindal, an individual who had a way of getting into trouble with the ‘central authorities.’” The homilies that Greenblatt views as one of the oppressive state aparatuses, were written by a man who regularly found himself at odds with the state. A biography of this Edmund Grindal, then, could offer a way to break open this representation of the Elizabethan state as a monolithic entity. The individual life, because of the friction with grand narratives it perhaps inevitably displays, can function as a tool in the examination of the fragmented operations of power. Only Greenblatt does not seem to have used it as such.

I would like to close with a pre-emptive strike and problematize my own paper by hoisting it with its own petard. I realize that I have retraced some of the very steps that I seek to question in Greenblatt’s biography. By reading Will in the World in the context of Greenblatt’s earlier new historical work, I could be acused of focusing too much on the individual life and creative genius of the critic, rather than the contemporary financial pressures and publishing conventions that may have shaped this biography. Perhaps the creative genius of Stephen Greenblatt had only limited individual agency in the face of these economic forces?

[1] “Het belang van contextualisering is daarmee beslist bewezen. De hamvraag is hier echter of de biografische benadering daarvoor het juiste hulpmiddel is.” In: “Biografie en Wetenschapsgeschiedenis: De kansen en grenzen van een alliantie,” Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis 29 (2003): 225-44 (232).

[2] See also James Shapiro’s “Toward a New Biography of Shakespeare,” in: Shakespeare Survey 58 (2005): 9-14.

3. One remark made at the conference was that it might be interesting to take into account Greenblatt’s views on individual lives and cultural history in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning, because they seem to be more in accordance with his approach in the biography.


3 thoughts on “Shakespeare biography

  1. This is very good Kristine, nicely thought provoking. I’m completing research for a dissertation on a man who tried to advance mathematics in the England of Charles II by encouraging others to achieve greatness. He achieved recognition but, in his life and works, was more an ordinary person than a great one. When I started I thought I’d be writing about his contributions to the Scientific Revolution. That paper would have given priority to individual agency within historical context. Lately I’m beginning to see a somewhat different approach: an exploration of evidence for an emerging urban culture, one made up of men who, like the person I’m studying, pursued intellectual achievements without having the advantages of wealth, gentle birth, family connections, university education, or the like. This would have more a flavor of historicism: “an individual shaped by and shaping society”

  2. Thanks for your kind comment, Jeff. I hope the reception of my paper tomorrow will be as nice! Your new approach to your subject sounds very worthwhile, because it takes into account so much more than the individual life and ideas of your mathematician.

    I have always struggled a little with the place of individual agency in the new historicisim, also in my thesis. There, I looked at the ways in which plays represented revenge, and I found a similar field of forces of individual, class, education (in the law, for example), institutions (like the inns of court) and cultural, religious, political contexts.

  3. Pingback: Carnivalesque 44 « Mercurius Politicus

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