Plague on the Globe?

Shakespeare The Later Years

by Russell Fraser
Columbia University Press, 380 pp., $29.95

Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theater: The Stuart Years

by Leeds Barroll
Cornell University Press, 249 pp., $34.95

Every biographer of a writer has to start with a difficult decision: whether to bring the life and works together or keep them separate. If the writer lived four hundred years ago it may well be that not enough is known about his life, or the precise dates of the works, to make possible a properly integrated study of both. Mr. Fraser boldly attempts such a biography of Shakespeare, while Mr. Barroll points out the many risks involved in dating the plays, and the failures of those who have indulged in this popular pastime.

To be more accurate, Mr. Fraser now offers half a biography. Shakespeare The Later Years continues his earlier Young Shakespeare (which I reviewed four years ago), adopting the same strategy: a few pages on the life, a few on one of the plays, and plenty of “facts” to fill in empty spaces.

He got his money as he could, soaring or stooping. As actor he shared the revenue from the sale of beer, tobacco, fruit, and nuts. His company’s “ordinary” poet, he enjoyed an “allowance” or was paid for his plays at the going rate of £6 or better. In James’s reign, this payment tripled. By then Shakespeare had ceased acting….

Mr. Fraser’s gift for bringing the distant past back to life is admirable, as long as the reader is aware that not all the “facts” are equally certain. Shakespeare was “never in Ireland with Essex” (who knows?). “For almost a year the theaters stayed dark” (a power cut at the Globe?). “No text of Shakespeare’s published in his lifetime is divided into acts or scenes” (plays were not divided into numbered scenes, as today; yet scene-endings were clearly marked by an exeunt). Reviewers may niggle at Mr. Fraser’s multitudinous assertions, many of which cannot be proved, yet the victory remains with him—a crowded canvas that is lifelike and convincing, in general terms if not in some of the detail.

While the bustle of Shakespeare’s England is vividly presented, Mr. Fraser disappoints when he turns to the dramatist’s tastes and personality. “Stratford was a good place to come from and go back to, but Shakespeare didn’t care to live there.” “Xenophobic Shakespeare doesn’t like Italians.” “Shakespeare grew more skeptical as he grew older, also less patient, another word for naturalistic” (more skeptical even after King Lear?). “Four years after his son died, Shakespeare in Hamlet had to face him”; and again,

old memory and desire quicken in the last plays, and Shakespeare’s girl-heroines evoke his own son Hamnet, long dead like the son of Leontes. In the person of Alonso, Shakespeare asks the dead child forgiveness.

This is all idle speculation, and one can just as easily speculate otherwise—that Shakespeare loved Stratford, retiring there very early, in his mid-forties; that some of his most delightful and/or sensible heroines are Italian (Juliet, Portia, Beatrice, Desdemona), and so on. Mr. Fraser’s own summing-up …

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