(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Shakespeare: The Later Years, Russell Fraser, the Austin Warren professor of English at the University of Michigan, has completed his two-volume biography of William Shakespeare. The first volume, Young Shakespeare (1988), chronicles the dramatist’s life for its first thirty years, to 1594. Fraser resumes his narrative with Shakespeare, at the age of thirty, becoming a partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of two London companies of players. The volume explores his most significant years of productivity and critiques most of his dramas, beginning with the plays of his early maturity. Shortly after he became a member of the company, Shakespeare began producing richly diverse dramas including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Richard II, and Romeo and Juliet, plays that feature a galaxy of well-developed characters. “Later” in the title is somewhat misleading, for Fraser’s work begins with the period when Shakespeare’s inventive power was maturing, when he was undertaking more subtle and complex dramas, not declining as the title might suggest.

In his approach to the art of biography, Fraser is conservative, systematic, and thorough, retaining on the whole the basic assumptions that guided his approaches in the first volume. As its sources, the book employs primarily legal and historical records, the works, and the known facts concerning locales where Shakespeare lived and worked. Fraser believes that the works are the best index to Shakespeare’s character, although he points out that the dramatist drew his own characters from history or fiction, not from life. He also acknowledges at the outset that Shakespeare the man remains an enigma.

Unlike his associates and fellow dramatists—Ben Jonson, Thomas Nashe, and John Marston—Shakespeare carefully avoided literary quarrels and had little to say about his contemporaries. No trace of professional jealousy, no involvement in contemporary issues, and no personal letters giving his opinions and attitudes remain. Encomiastic praise of patrons, often abundant in the works of his contemporaries, is sparse in Shakespeare’s. His rival Ben Jonson left in his poetry, dramas, and criticism astute and at times caustic opinions about his contemporaries and his audience, in addition to numerous eulogistic verses to patrons. Views that he left unwritten were preserved by William Drummond, a Scottish poet whom Jonson visited in 1619. Drummond, an admirer, took the trouble of recording and later publishing Jonson’s scathing criticisms of his rivals in poetry, and the collection adds much to posterity’s impression of Jonson’s prickly personality. For Shakespeare, however, limited information of this type exists, and what is extant offers little that illuminates his character. To Fraser, Shakespeare represents on one hand a transcendent poetic genius, whose life offers no clue to account for his extraordinary poetic gift. On the other hand, he is a shrewd and successful businessman, whose actions are evident from numerous official records. The title of the first chapter, “Two-Headed Janus,” establishes this dichotomous view of the subject that continues throughout the book.

Because it is confirmed by deeds, documents, contracts, and other testimony, Fraser’s portrayal of Shakespeare as a successful businessman creates the volume’s clearest impression. Gone is the contemplative bard, inspired by transcendent genius, whose nimble wit, fertile imagination, and capacious intellect people the stage with characters as if by magic. Before the reader stands Shakespeare the businessman; had he lived to an advanced age, he might have merited the title a few modern critics grudgingly accorded W. Somerset Maugham during his declining years—the Grand Old Businessman of English letters. Most students vaguely familiar with Shakespeare’s life understand that his share in the theater company, his modest earnings from writing thirty-seven dramas, and his third night’s revenues (the custom of granting the author the third night’s profits) stood Shakespeare in good stead. It is widely known that unlike most writers of his age, his earnings enabled Shakespeare to move back to his native town to an affluent retirement. Fraser provides ample and detailed clarification of other perquisites and profits that Shakespeare enjoyed. During the time of plague in London, theater company tours through southern England, from Dover to Bath and as far north as Oxford, brought additional revenues to the shareholders. Shakespeare reaped additional profits from private performances at court and even from playhouse concessions. Fraser accepts the estimate that during his productive years with the company Shakespeare earned annually, at a minimum, £250—this at a time when the annual wage of an unskilled laborer was £7.

With abundant capital to invest, he bought houses in London and Stratford, farmland outside...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)