by Russell Fraser
Columbia University Press, 247 pp., $29.00
Biographies of Shakespeare usually dwell on the “outer life”—legal documents, his friends and professional associates, allusions to him—and say little or nothing about his art. Excellent in their own way, G.E. Bentley’s Biographical Handbook (1961) and S. Schoenbaum’s A Documentary Life (1975) followed this tradition, which began in the eighteenth century. “No biography exists,” according to Mr. Fraser, “that is simultaneously a comprehensive and scrupulous account of the life, and a consideration, worth having, of the art. This is the book I have sought to write.”
Young Shakespeare tilts much more toward the “life” than the “art,” and there will be argument whether the two really come together successfully, “two distincts, division none.” Nevertheless, this is a biography unlike any other, deliberately breaking away from some of the thinking as well as from the presentation of predecessors. Biographers of the “outer life” can also lean in different directions, either “life in Shakespeare’s England” or the life story of the dramatist. Mr. Fraser, again, tries to combine the two, and writes so fully (and interestingly) on the first that he leaves himself too little room for the life story, and so he misses some opportunities.
Instead of offering a straight narrative, or subsectioned chapters, Young Shakespeare weaves together a curious tapestry that includes literary and theatrical history, Shakespeare’s life story, and analysis of his art. The book moves back and forth, thus opening up new perspectives. This technique may confuse some readers; those who know a little about Shakespeare and his age, and who expect the familiar guided tour, will find Mr. Fraser a very pleasant surprise.
Historians of Shakespeare’s time report a War of the Theaters, Jonson pitted against his contemporaries, Marston, Dekker, etc. But the Theater War that mattered was between the new realism and old mimetic art, the approximation of reality. Dating from the years when these competitors were fighting it out, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale has a famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” For this, they brought on a man in a bear suit. Nobody was fooled, except as he wished to be. Inigo Jones, had they asked his opinion, would have sent them for their bear to Henslowe’s Garden, just over the way. Shakespeare, however, preferred the mimetic thing. He kept reality at art’s length.
Beginners may want to be told a little more about the War of the Theaters or Inigo Jones (the designer, among other things, of special stage costumes) or Henslowe’s Bear Garden. Mr. Fraser prefers not to answer every question, modeling himself on the dramatist. “Crosscutting from Cheapside to the king’s palace, Shakespeare, raising questions, leaves them unresolved. That is how he teaches.”
Yet Mr. Fraser, like every other biographer, feels the need to establish some central points, and he sometimes writes of possibilities as if they were facts. “He was still in his teens when Anne Hathaway, eight years older, initiated him.” “The failure of Shakespeare …