What Shakespeare Read-and Thought
Shakespeare and Tragedy
Of making many Shakespeares there is no end; and in every image of Shakespeare as it takes form there is the potential for blotting out or blurring some part of every other Shakespeare. The more opaque and substantial we make the man from Stratford (b. 1564, d. 1616), the less we are likely to understand some of the other Shakespeares who speak to us from the texts of the plays. Like the material surviving from ancient Rome, the biographical material surviving from 400 years ago is mostly hardware, limited in quantity but even more in quality. It consists of contracts, leases, formal documents; of occasional allusions in the plays to things read in books and public events. At its outer fringes, the material relies on conjecture, more or less probable, about personal relationships.
Out of these materials A.L. Rowse, in What Shakespeare Read—and Thought, has compounded his image of Shakespeare. The picture he presents is that of an alert stage journalist, responding to the latest public scandals, or to the most recent book at which he has glanced—always to the stimulus closest to hand. To the extent that Shakespeare has an identity of his own, it is that of a conservative, patriotic, heterosexual Anglican businessman. He has a good ear, excellent training in the theater, a talent for expressing the commonplaces of the age, and a minimum of general ideas—not even great powers of introspection or reflection. The more closely Rowse can tie Shakespeare’s work to the current events of his time, the more confident he is of having captured the “real” Shakespeare; and he is nothing if not confident.
To be sure, one notes that in constructing his image of Shakespeare, Rowse doesn’t flinch from the oldest of errors, attributing the sentiments of characters in the plays to the author. As a candidate for the Friend in the sonnets, he ignores the Earl of Pembroke as an alternative to Southampton and equally ignores Chapman as an alternative to Marlowe for the Rival Poet. He accepts popular traditions when they make for some part of his case, and ignores obvious facts when they don’t. His great achievement on these lines is to sketch the biography of the dramatist without mentioning the name of his wife, or even acknowledging her existence, except so far as children must be presumed to have a mother. On the other hand, his identification of the Dark Lady, though completely hypothetical, is given central importance—and not in a meeching, suggestive way. For Rowse it is an established, unquestionable fact.
More important, though less curious, is the fact that Rowse’s book consists almost entirely of details gleaned long ago by other avid gleaners. Though no allusion is made to them, the two volumes of Shakespeare’s England and the 1898 biography by Sir Sidney Lee would probably furnish 90 percent of the materials for the present book. This is inevitable; Shakespeare had no Boswell to present the intimate …