(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 28)

Every biography is a palimpsest, written over the biographies that preceded it, and in turn to be covered by the texts that succeed it. Honan’s life of Shakespeare rests above a series of lives dating back at least to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England (1662). Fuller could not discover the date of Shakespeare’ s death, but he began the unending process of eking out limited information with mythology. Fuller’s brief account of the playwright tells of “the wit combats betwixt [Shakespeare] and Ben Johnson [sic],” a pleasant but unverifiable anecdote. From Nicholas Rowe’s forty-page preface to his 1709 edition of Shakespeare onward, fact and fiction, or at least unconfirmed anecdote, have melded inextricably in biographies of England’s premier dramatist and poet.

Honan seeks to banish the unproved, or at least to subject it to careful scrutiny. This skepticism begins with Honan’s treatment of Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare’s death date is known: April 23, 1616. So, too, is the date of Shakespeare’s baptism, April 26, 1564. A birth date of April 23 would lend symmetry to the life, and April 23 is St. George’s Day, the festival of England’s patron saint. Hence, many a biography and reference work, indulging in a bit of wishful fact-making, cites April 23 as the date of Shakespeare’s birth. Honan refuses to accept so welcome an attribution and instead chooses to leave the date, like so much else of Shakespeare’s life, a mystery.

Similarly, he will not endorse Russell Fraser’s claim in Young Shakespeare (1988) that in 1575 John Shakespeare took his eleven-year-old son to see the royal reception that Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, gave Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth, a short distance from Stratford. On July 18, Leicester entertained the queen with a pageant that included Triton riding on a mermaid and Arion bestriding a dolphin. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595), Shakespeare’s Oberon recalls,

once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song. (II, i, 149-152)

Is Shakespeare recalling a scene from his childhood? In the absence of evidence, Honan discounts Shakespeare’s firsthand knowledge of the spectacle.

E. A. J. Honigmann (Shakespeare: “The Lost Years,” 1985) and Eric Sams (The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594, 1995) have argued that Shakespeare spent part of his youth in Lancashire as a servant in a Catholic household, where he was noticed by Henry Stanley, fourth earl of Derby; Derby’s servants are known to have performed some of Shakespeare’s early plays. Honan carefully assesses the evidence, but he maintains, rightly, that the case remains unproved.

Yet what remains if one strips away the traditional accounts and surmises? Prior to Robert Greene’s reference to Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III (pr. c. 1590-1591), documents show Shakespeare’s baptism, his marriage to Anne Hathaway on November 30 or December 1, 1582, the baptism of Shakespeare’s three children—Susanna on May 26, 1583, the twins Judith and Hamnet on February 2, 1585—and his involvement in an unsuccessful 1588 suit brought by his parents against his aunt and uncle, Edmund and Joan Lambert. Honan manages ninety-two pages, nearly a quarter of his book, from this unpromising paucity of information.

He does so by focusing on Shakespeare’s milieu. What would he have heard and seen and learned as a young man growing up in a market town of some 240 families? Shakespeare’s father dealt (illegally) in wool. In The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611) the old shepherd knows exactly how much wool a sheep yields and how much wool costs. The sheep-shearing festival in that play, set in Bohemia, recalls celebrations at Stratford. The French forest in As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600) more closely resembles the Arden north of Stratford than the Ardennes. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (pr. 1597) Shakespeare assigns to the aptly named Justice Shallow a coat of arms with twelve white luces (pikes), recalling the three silver luces insignia of Sir Thomas Lucy, whose fine estate, Charlecote, stood four miles north of Stratford. Shallow has come to Windsor to complain of Sir John Falstaff’s poaching his deer. Rowe reported that Shakespeare killed one of Lucy’s deer and, when Lucy prosecuted him too severely, wrote a caustic ballad against his antagonist. Lucy’s anger then forced Shakespeare to flee Stratford for London and the theater. Honan rejects the poaching story, but he observes that the Lucy coat of arms, displayed in the Charlecote windows, could have lingered in the playwright’s mind.

Even Honan cannot embrace absolute Pyrrhonism, though. Rowe was the first to report that Shakespeare attended the...

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