Young Shakespeare

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In a book that chronicles the life of William Shakespeare for its first thirty years, Russell Fraser points out that biographers know more about Shakespeare than about any of his contemporaries, dramatists such as Robert Greene and Ben Jonson. Anyone who examines E. K. Chambers’ William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (1930) or Samuel Schoenbaum’s more recent William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975) recognizes the soundness of the point. Historical scholarship has uncovered numerous details and records concerning Shakespeare and his family. Yet Fraser’s comment misses the mark in one important respect. The biographical details that exist about Shakespeare—church records, business documents, deeds, a will—reveal little about the subject as a person. Anecdotes that indicate something about Shakespeare’s personality, though numerous, usually date from a much later time or derive from questionable sources and therefore remain unreliable. Shakespeare himself apparently avoided public controversy, kept his political and religious opinions to himself, and left no personal writings at all. On the other hand, the kind of information that exists about Robert Greene and Ben Jonson enables one to make inferences about their personalities and characters, for they were much more willing to reveal their emotions in conversations and writings that have survived. To cite another example, this one of a poet born eight years before Shakespeare’s death, John Milton involved himself in the major political and religious controversies of his time, recorded his own emotions, values, and opinions in lengthy prose passages, and prompted others to react to him in writing. As a result, readers know, or can know, as much about him as they know about Shakespeare’s greatest characters—Hamlet, King Lear, Mark Antony. As with fictional characters, readers can predict how Milton would have reacted and what side of an issue he would have championed.

Given the limitations inherent in the records, biographers have chosen between two extremes—a scholarly, factual account that reveals little about the subject but much about his times, or a fanciful, sometimes whimsical account that relies heavily on anecdotes and the biographer’s fertile imagination. Fraser seeks to improve on previous accounts by giving a “comprehensive and scrupulous account of the life, and a consideration, worth having, of the art.” The reader must be prepared to settle for something less than a full portrait, but Fraser offers a highly informative and valuable study.

In his presentation of the life, Fraser relies heavily on the numerous facts that exist. The narrative, with its successive chapters, suggests a series of larger and smaller circles, with Shakespeare at the center of each—the circle of the Shakespeare country where his relatives lived, the circle of Stratford where he spent his boyhood, the circle of London where he settled, of the theater and fellow dramatists, and of patrons. Between the center and the circumference, Fraser has filled in a wealth of details about things Shakespearean and Elizabethan. He records the location of the bowl used in Shakespeare’s christening, the costs of labor, and the price of admission to public theaters. He describes the Guild Hall in Stratford where Shakespeare first saw drama professionally performed, the sights he would have seen on his journey to London, and the gate he would have used to enter the city. The effect of those numerous details and records of Shakespeare’s family is to educate the reader about Elizabethan England, a valuable contribution. As for the point at the center, however, it is as though Shakespeare emerges from all these circles, this wealth of concrete influences, to create something of his own, while retaining facets of his experience.

Fraser’s assemblage of so many references in the plays to Shakespeare’s experiences in and around Stratford leads to a significant conclusion, for it undermines the anti-Stratfordians’ case. It is difficult to imagine how a noble playwright or a university wit such as Christopher Marlowe could have recorded the numerous references to plants, animals, people, and events of Shakespeare’s Stratford.

As for the anecdotes of Shakespeare’s early life, Fraser includes most of them without lending them very much credence. Thus, he retells the story of Shakespeare fleeing to London to escape the charge of poaching deer on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy. He...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, August 1, 1988, p. 1118.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, October 13, 1988, p. 53.

The New York Times. CXXXVIII, September 30, 1988, p. C33.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 20, 1989, p. 63.