Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1839
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 narrates the story of William Shakeshafte, a contemporary actor in nearby Lancashire, whose name may have been, but probably was not, a mistaken transcription of Shakespeare’s. To explain some of Shakespeare’s “lost years,” Fraser prefers the belief that he joined a troupe of professional actors in Stratford in 1587 and went with them to London. Oddly, he does little to develop information about Shakespeare’s acting career, choosing instead to focus on his creativity in writing.
When he examines Shakespeare’s works, Fraser does so with a view toward illuminating biography and the biographical background, for the setting exerted a strong influence upon the course of the dramatist’s life. The London of his day, with its professional actors, newly built theaters, and established playwrights, made it possible for Shakespeare’s talent to flourish. Had he arrived ten years earlier, it is doubtful that he could have become a successful dramatist. As it happened, play-writing became his normal literary activity, and when he wrote poetry, such as Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), he did so because the theaters were closed as a result of the plague. Dramatists already established, such as Thomas Kyd and Marlowe, exerted a strong stimulus on his creativity and influenced his early plays, as Fraser ably demonstrates.
While the writings themselves offer little information about Shakespeare’s character and personality, allusions to events of the time, often ambiguous, surface repeatedly in the dramas. In Shakespeare’s lifetime a young girl named Katherine Hamnet drowned in a stream near Stratford, a death reminiscent of Ophelia’s in Hamlet (c. 1600-1601). Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, whose name is interchangeable with Hamlet, was named for his Stratford acquaintance Hamnet Sadler. He borrowed character names such as Peto, Bardolph, and Fluellen from people who lived in his own part of the country, though not their characters. Numerous similar allusions to Shakespeare’s country can be cited from the dramas. As Fraser points out, however, Shakespeare created his characters from literature or history, not from people he knew. Many scholars will disagree with Fraser’s extension of this generalization to the Sonnets (1609), for he assumes that the Dark Lady, the Young Man, and the Sonnets’ strange plot were creations of Shakespeare’s imagination. Yet precedent favors the extension.
Despite the wealth of detail and biographical allusions in the plays, Fraser’s Shakespeare as character remains inscrutable and almost as insubstantial as Prospero’s dream. Still, Fraser offers a well-developed theory about his essential identity, that of a creative artist. His Shakespeare is a dedicated professional and something of a recluse who shunned company in the interest of writing. His preoccupation was not with family, friends, or company, but with his art and with success. Not gregarious, he appears to have possessed the negative capability that John Keats found in his work, suspending his own ego and emotion so that his characters could develop theirs. As Fraser explains, “None of his acquaintances were allowed to get close.”
Not immune to the pangs of despised love or any other emotions, he transmutes them into art. “In his sonnets and plays, Shakespeare, speaking through fictitious persons, ’shadows of himself,’ is making a ’recordation’ to his soul.” More an observer than a participant in life, only “sweet” by biographer’s mistaking, he is “not benevolent, only acquisitive, insatiably that,” so that “he annexes whatever territories butt on his own.” The artist who absorbs emotion and experience primarily to endow fictional characters with feeling remains aloof, shadowy, and inaccessible. “Shakespeare’s life differs from his art . . . pointing to nothing beyond itself until he dreams it.” When Fraser thinks of comparison with other artists, he thinks of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “his only peer among artists,” but Mozart’s genius grew out of his nurturing, whereas Shakespeare “realized his genius against the grain.”
Like many great artists, Shakespeare was a businessman with an astute eye for profits and advancement. The numerous legal documents extant testify to that, and one of the few Shakespeare signatures in existence, easily viewed in the British Museum exhibit, is inscribed on a seal attached to a property deed. In the Sonnets, perhaps the most personally revealing of his writings, though the message is ambiguous and even mysterious, Shakespeare treats the most profound human themes—friendship, love, immortality—with commercial metaphors and diction such as deeds, bonds, buying and selling, loans, leases, and accounts.
Although Fraser provides documentation, he expects his readers to have a reasonable knowledge of the works, and seldom are quotations from Shakespeare identified. A more substantial problem for Shakespeare scholars is Fraser’s inclination to offer conjectures and conclusions without qualification, as if they were widely accepted facts or strongly supported theories. While the numerous conjectures seem plausible, they are often announced with confidence, even forcefully. A good example concerns the names of Shakespeare’s daughters, Susanna and Judith. Rejecting the theory that the selection of these names indicates sympathy with Puritanism, Fraser suggests how they were selected. “Turning pages in the Bible, he found his daughters’ names and liked the way they sounded.” This statement is pure conjecture of the kind found throughout the biography. On the other hand, at times better founded or more plausible speculation is expressed in guarded terms. Suggesting that the unusual name for Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, came from his lifelong acquaintance, Hamnet Sadler, Fraser is cautious about concluding that Sadler’s son William was named for Shakespeare.
Some of the tentative conclusions are embraced to meet the author’s purposes. Because King John (c. 1596-1597) shows an interesting resemblance to Marlowe’s works and because its style suggests an early work, Fraser is inclined to date the play earlier than most scholars. For allusions and quotations he reaches beyond the 1594 limit to the later plays, though often the passages bear the imprint of Shakespeare’s early experience. Shakespeare scholars will find a few mistakes and omissions (for example, Fraser appears to overlook the praise of Queen Elizabeth in act 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1595-1596), but will be more troubled by the speculative conclusions.
In the final analysis, Fraser’s Shakespeare remains an aloof and nebulous figure, not very interesting as a character. Seldom is the admonition “Trust the art, not the artist” more applicable. The primary value of Fraser’s book lies in its re-creation of the Shakespearean setting. He describes numerous structures and sites—the interior of the Stratford Guild Hall, the design and interior arrangement of Holy Trinity Church, the path that Shakespeare took to Anne Hathaway’s house—in vivid details that enliven for the reader the experience of a great genius. To ask for more is to ask what no other biographer of Shakespeare has been able to achieve.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28
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.
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