One school of literary criticism is biographical criticism. What are some of its characteristics and assumptions?
Biographical criticism assumes that knowledge of an author’s life is important to knowledge of an author’s work. It assumes that the more we know about the author’s ideas, beliefs, and personality, the better we can interpret his/her work. Thus biographical critics tend to search for any and every bit of evidence that might help illuminate where, how, and with whom the writer lived and the persons with whom the writer most often interacted. Especially important to biographical critics is the discovery of any other written works by the author, as well as any testimony about the writer from people with whom s/he was in close contact. In short, any kind of information about the author’s life tends to be valued by biographical critics, who try to piece together all the parts of the biographical puzzle and offer justifiable interpretations of the data. These interpretations, of course, often differ greatly from one critic to another, and it is partly in the hope of supporting, challenging, or supplanting previous interpretations that biographical critics are always searching for – and hoping to find – some new piece of evidence.
A good example of biographical criticism involves Ben Jonson, the great contemporary and friendly rival of William Shakespeare. In the last few decades many new biographical data concerning Jonson have been discovered, including works of his that were previously unknown, signed books from his library that had not previously been located, and, in one remarkable recent case, a long manuscript concerning his life written by a person who had accompanied him on his walking tour to Scotland. Ian Donaldson, in his recent biography of Jonson, was able to incorporate many of these discoveries into his narrative, thus producing a biography of Jonson that in some ways supersedes all earlier books of that kind. If further documents by and about Jonson continue to be discovered, even more light will be shed on his life and on his works.
The holy grail of many biographical critics would be to find some startling new documents by or about William Shakespeare. A newly discovered work, a hand-written diary, a new manuscript about Shakespeare by someone who actually knew him – any of these kinds of discoveries would be greeted as sensations in the world of scholarship and beyond. In the absence of such discoveries, some scholars, such as the biographer Charles Nicholl, have looked more closely at evidence already known. Thus The New York Times said that Nicholl’s book The Lodger Shakespeare,
resting on a solid foundation of teased-out biographical details, opens a window onto Jacobean London and the swirl of sights and sensations that surrounded Shakespeare and inevitably found their way into his plays. From a mere handful of dry facts embedded in an obscure lawsuit, Mr. Nicholl brings forth a gaudy, tumultuous, richly imagined world.
The number of insufficiently explored archives is still great, and so there is always hope that new information about writers such as Shakespeare will continue to emerge.