By the Book
William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Geniusby Anthony Holden
Little, Brown, and Company, 416 pp., $29.95
The history of Shakespeare biographies, from the first one, by Nicolas Rowe in 1701, to Holden's book, is a demonstration of by how narrow a strait inference is divided from projection, and how easy it is to leap from one side to the other.
Holden begins by telling us that, contrary to popular belief, there is quite a lot we do know about Shakespeare. In fact, he maintains that "we know more about the life of Shakespeare than that of any of his literary contemporaries bar Ben Johnson." I am not sure what "more" refers to here. We don't have the kind of autobiographical work, from Shakespeare, that we have from Thomas Nashe, or the amount of scurrilous news we have about, say, Gabriel Harvey, one of the more obscure Elizabethan controversialists. Harvey, because his personal life became a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game for his many enemies, is an actual personality to us. That is, we can connect the facts about him with an encompassing narrative.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, exists in a scattering of facts -- the publication dates of the quartos, diary entries of playgoers, the occasional property title or baptismal document -- which lead us into the cul de sacs of our own fantasies, inevitably influenced by the man we think we see behind the plays. But is the real Shakespeare more Hamlet or Polonius? That is the question.
The task of the Shakespeare biographer, then, is to be on guard against the inevitable corruption ensuing from that process -- half history, half fiction -- within which speculation attaches to precedent speculation until, by mere reiteration, the original, tentative guess is transformed into a warranted fact. Holden liberally sprinkles verb phrases like "must have" through the text, to give his version of Shakespeare more authority, and, to muster us to his side, uses leading questions as if they were little theatrical asides ("But who might have caused him such powerful emotions at this particular time, feeding the frenzy behind Othello's 'goats and monkeys'?"). Inevitably, history gets incrementally ousted by fantasy.
Facts and their skewing aside, though, the important thing is Holden's idea of Shakespeare. Unsurprisingly, Will turns out to be a very Tony Blair-era professional writer. He journeys between his writing life in London and his country wife and kids in Stratford. He doesn't love the wife, Anne Hathaway, who is eight years older than Shakespeare. The kids grow up seeing dad once a year. Most of the time he's down in London. Hamnet, the boy, dies at 11, which devastates his father, who consequently releases his grief in his tragedies. Hamnet's death is Holden's obsession -- Holden finds the little boy haunting even King Lear. Paternal vulnerability brings out the same rhetoric in Holden that virginal purity used to bring out in the Victorians.
Whatever the virtues of Holden as a biographer, he has none as a critic. When he is moved to the depths, as he is by Hamlet, he comes up with such platitudinous aperçus as: "It tells the story of Everyman as never before or since." Nowhere does he show that idiosyncratic connection to the theatrical logic and verbal imagery which makes it fun to read the best Shakespeare commentators, like Coleridge or Hazlitt or even John Berryman.
In his introduction, Holden says that each generation creates an image of Shakespeare it can call its own. It is fair to say that Holden succeeds in doing this. His Shakespeare is as flat, stale, and profitable as, we intuit, Holden is himself -- and, by extension, the generation of which he is also apparently a member. This is the one which came to power at the crepuscule of Margaret Thatcher's reign, and is presently reaping the fruits of being meaner, leaner, and wired in Tony Blair's "New Britain." Millennially middle-aged, Holden's generation has lost its sense that art really can be a second life, rather than an expression, suitably tricked up with symbols, of emotion. I speak, of course, as an American member of this cursed, aging crew myself. Not for us the notion that art liberates from the specificity of feeling and, even, from the intimate prison of one's own most deeply held beliefs. Keats called this Shakespeare's "negative capability." This is a characteristic as far beyond Holden's Shakespeare as it was another of Holden's subjects, Princess Di, whose passing Holden heralded with a "photo essay." In its place we have the ethos of self-esteem, which Holden's Shakespeare, down to his "redemptive" last plays, seems to exemplify. More's the pity.