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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),1 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 seems to admit defeat, a lack of definition in his portrait, and shows that he now pays too little attention to a crucial witness.

While he lived, friends of his or the friends of friends wrote down their impressions, fifty or sixty of them. Most salute the artist but some speak of the man, and the way he comes through is worth noting. Praise belongs to the man, couched in general terms, however. Nothing prickly about him, he bears little resemblance to Marlowe, Jonson, or Donne. “Sweet Master Shakespeare” lacks edges.

Honest, open, and free, they call him, nimble of brain and “pregnant” of wit (the insipid prose of the will notwithstanding), friendly, good company, “so dear loved a neighbor.” He was all these things, even to excess, wanting only one thing, definition, his gift to others.

The witness who paints a more sharply defined portrait is Shakespeare himself, speaking in his own person in the dedications of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece and, with some poetic license, in the Sonnets. Mr. Fraser dealt with these texts in his previous volume: had he set the Sonnets alongside the will (“insipid prose”? See my “The Second-Best Bed,” in The New York Review, November 7, 1991) he might have agreed that gentle Shakespeare could turn prickly, even angry, like gentle Hamlet. The poet of the Sonnets has much in common with Hamlet, and is as fascinatingly complex as any of the dramatic characters—who, though, has complained that Hamlet lacks definition?

An admirer of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, Mr. Fraser has invented a style that seems to be modeled on the master’s. He, too, is partial to “unsignaled switch-overs…jumping but not bridging the gap from here to there,” and the effect is sometimes equally irritating. “Can’t the playwright speak his mind without torturing our English language?” Nevertheless, to adapt an early critic of Shakespeare’s stylistic excesses, there is as much in him to be praised as to be pardoned. Notably his pervasive humor. “Timon,” he says, “hopes for tragedy but stumbles on farce.” All’s Well and Measure for Measure “celebrate the triumph of our erected flesh.” And “sexual anxiety [is] the grease it runs on” (of Troilus). Also, his pleasure in paradox: the tragedies “record the weakness of strength,” the comedies “record the strength of weakness.” And other flashes: in Merry Wives “the reverberations that fill the silences in the greater comedies are missing.”

As for the plays, Mr. Fraser not only examines them one by one—somewhat sketchily, six to seven pages or so on average—he also writes well about their interconnections, as one expects from a biographer.

Readers who read his two plays back to back will be aware how one mirrors the other. “Crossed” lovers not allowed to choose for themselves, Lysander and Hermia reflect the tragic plight of Romeo and Juliet…. [Shakespeare] discovers genuine likenesses he hadn’t seen before. Some are disconcerting. Lysander, a fickle hero willing to change a raven for a dove, is uncomfortably like Romeo….

Public men chilled his blood. So much is clear from Henry V where the hero, no sooner crowned, turns into Hotspur. Antedating Julius Caesar by only a few months, Shakespeare’s English history shows him thinking “forward” from England to Rome.

In both of the above extracts, and often elsewhere, Mr. Fraser assumes that the order of the plays has been established, and perhaps even their year of composition. So let us attend to Mr. Barroll, who concentrates on this single issue—the dating of the later plays (1603–1613)—and on some equally important side issues: Shakespeare’s rate of output; the attitude of James I to his players; Shakespeare’s social status; dating “methodology,” and the interpretation of crucial documents. Politics (I abbreviate the title) is a wide-ranging book, from which I have learned a good deal. Mr. Barroll’s own methodology, however, leaves me uneasy.

At the start, and many times thereafter, Mr. Barroll explains that his purpose is to challenge “the currently privileged ‘lives’ of the dramatist.” Others “continue to privilege a nineteenth-century daguerreotype of Shakespeare”: he sets out to “deconstruct the traditionally privileged descriptions of the poet’s life,” “to deossify this old history,” to “demystify the association of Shakespeare’s company with King James.” I don’t care for the jargon, so often nowadays just a flag-waving exercise, but the prospect of Mr. Barroll (of Harvard, Princeton, etc., editor of Shakespeare Studies and other journals) lashing out at privileged books and colleagues was irresistible.

Politics, however, although impatient with those who practice the “traditional maneuvers,” is not an intemperate book; on the contrary, it appears to be carefully planned and written. Mr. Barroll’s starting point, the belief that others have not “closely considered” the interaction of plagues and playhouses, leads on to a detailed history of the plague and of counter-measures, one, in London, being the closing of playhouses.

By an order of the Privy Council of 1604, public theatrical performances had to stop when the weekly total of deaths from plague reached thirty. Mr. Barroll makes thirty plague deaths per week his standard for judging when playhouses were closed, lists plague deaths (where known) week by week from 1603 to 1610, drawing on bills of mortality and other sources; he shows, however, that theaters sometimes closed before deaths reached this cutoff point. Thus he provides a useful calendar for theater historians, building on the work of E. K. Chambers and his successors.2

As Mr. Barroll admits, the bills of mortality may not be wholly reliable; but contemporary letters now and then confirm their figures, and this is reassuring. The real surprise comes when Mr. Barroll applies his findings to biography: “I try to show that the availability of the Globe playhouse was an extremely significant factor in Shakespeare’s writing—that when the Globe was closed, Shakespeare’s production slowed markedly or stopped.” He sees some of the difficulties: “if Shakespeare did not wish to write plays throughout the periods when the playhouses were shut…how could he have had the time to produce his last ten dramas at all? Between 1603 and 1611, the playhouses in London were closed off and on for a period of at least sixty-eight months.” He answers that “when the circumstances were favorable—when the playhouses were open and stages available—Shakespeare seems to have produced very rapidly indeed.”

True, he wrote rapidly: yet “producing” involves others apart from the dramatist. Texts have to be copied, parts learned, staging rehearsed—the actors had many good reasons for urging Shakespeare to write while the theaters were closed, even had he not wanted to (which I doubt). Indeed, Mr. Barroll cites a number of court payments which seem to me to contradict his thesis. One was made out to the King’s Men, “being restrained from public playing within the City of London in the time of infection during the space of six weeks in which time they practised privately for his Majesty’s service.” Are we to suppose that they amused themselves for six weeks by practicing old plays?

Another weakness in Mr. Barroll’s argument is that the players must have had views about their dramatist’s rate of production, and would have preferred a steady output rather than one that was, in his words, discontinuous, inconsistent, erratic, and uneven. Shakespeare’s plays were by far their biggest attraction: in a list of eleven performances at court in 1604-1605, eight were of his plays, a good indication of his importance to them. Richard Brome, a dramatist similarly committed to one acting company, made a contract in 1635 to provide three plays a year for three years. We do not know whether Shakespeare had a contract, yet he and his colleagues must have had an understanding, at the very least, since the theatrical season necessitated careful planning.

Mr. Barroll observes that “from 1592 to 1602 he produced perhaps twenty-seven plays, about two per year.” Why “from 1592”? Shakespeare was denounced in 1592 as “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country,” i.e., was already an established dramatist. Others date his earliest extant plays between 1585 and 1590 (Mr. Fraser thinks he had written “as many as ten by 1592”), which would make two plays per year, Mr. Barroll’s figure, even more on-target. So we should remember that John Ward, vicar of Stratford from 1662 to 1681, recorded in his diary that Shakespeare “supplied ye stage with 2 plays every year”3—presumably Stratford gossip, corroborating what has been inferred from other evidence. I mention this because John Ward, who is not cited in Politics, strengthens the hypothesis of two plays per year up to circa 1602, which in turn suggests that everyone concerned saw the advantages of a steady output.

Must we accept that in the next ten years, when Shakespeare produced about ten plays, his output became discontinuous and erratic? We cannot rule out this possibility; nevertheless, it is also possible that, like Richard Brome after three years, Shakespeare could have renegotiated his contract or his “understanding” circa 1602, offering only one play a year. The reasons for forward planning remained, despite the interruptions caused by plague. In addition, Shakespeare’s father died in 1601, he himself must now have been very comfortable financially, and he soon withdrew from acting—a lighter writing commitment would have had its attractions.

Mr. Barroll rightly stresses that Venus and Adonis and Lucrece were published in 1593 and 1594, and were probably written when severe outbreaks of plague closed the theaters. Does it follow that “his creative drive for drama seems to have faltered” because he “divagated” to write poems? Can we be certain that he did not write plays in 1593 and 1594? Or in the Stuart years, when the plague struck in London? Did he never write plays in Stratford, or when his company toured in other parts of the country?

Critical of the traditional Shakespeare chronology, Mr. Barroll writes persuasively about the misuse of dating evidence. The “internal evidence” of style and meter is often presented in figures; he disputes that “these figures (assuming their accuracy) then become chronologically significant,” as some plays usually refuse to fit into the chronological scheme. Topical allusions are also tricky as evidence: the reference to equivocation in Macbeth (Act II, scene 3) may date the play in March–April 1606, when the trial of Father Henry Garnet made the subject topical. But “Garnet himself had long been associated with equivocation,” and “who is to say when the subject ever died?”

Yet Mr. Barroll’s own use of dating evidence also prompts misgivings. For instance, he quotes from a document dated 1617 to the effect that the Venetian and French ambassadors went “to a play called Pericles.” Knowing that the named ambassadors were in England between May 1606 and November 1608, and that playhouses were closed for much of this period, he deduces that Pericles could have been seen “at three different times: May and June 1606, one week in April 1607, or April through mid-July 1608.” He does not, however, quote all we need to know from the document, which continues, “to a play called Pericles, which cost Giustinian [the Venetian ambassador] more than 20 crowns.”4 Twenty crowns (or £5) would be an extraordinary sum to pay at the Globe, for James I normally paid £10 for a performance at court, and other members of the royal family paid ten marks (£6, 13s., 4d.) per play, as Mr. Barroll later explains. “More than 20 crowns” therefore looks like a payment for a private performance—the ambassadors went “to a play,” not to a playhouse—and, if so, playhouse closures would be quite irrelevant.

Another well-known document shows even better how slippery such evidence can be. It is a letter written by Sir Walter Cope to Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, in January 1605.

I have sent and been all this morning hunting for players, jugglers, and such kind of creatures, but find them hard to find. Wherefore, leaving notes for them to seek me, Burbage is come and says there is no new play that the queen has not seen; but they have revived an old one called Love’s Labor Lost, which for wit and mirth he says will please her exceedingly. And this is appointed to be played tomorrow night at my Lord of Southampton’s, unless you send a writ to remove the corpus cum causa, to your house in Strand. Burbage is my messenger ready attending your pleasure.

Mr. Barroll recapitulates that the actors appear to have told Cope “that, if his master Cecil wanted a new play for the queen right now, Cope had better know that they had only one reworked (Shakespearean) comedy,” and that Cope wrote that “the King’s Servants had no new plays”; he adds that “the persistence of Burbage as the court contact for the King’s Servants…is significant.” Yet other interpretations are possible: revived does not mean reworked; the letter surely implies that the actors did have new plays (inconveniently for Mr. Barroll’s argument), all of which the queen has seen; and before we jump to conclusions about Burbage as the court contact, the reader should be told that Cuthbert Burbage (brother of Richard, the actor) had been for years in the service of Sir Walter Cope, the writer of the letter. That the leading actor should be sent as a messenger, at a time when the playhouses were not closed, seems improbable: the Burbage in Cope’s last sentence is more likely to have been a servant.

Some of Mr. Barroll’s basic assumptions are also open to question. He thinks that Othello and Measure for Measure, known to have been performed at court in the 1604 Christmas season, would not have been performed at court a year earlier. Why? “The King’s Servants (and the master of the revels) could scarcely have wished a repetition of the former year’s offerings.” Again, “King Lear would almost certainly not be presented at court twice within a four-month period.” These assumptions fly in the face of the known facts. For, while most of the records of court performances specify payments to acting companies without naming plays, now and then plays are identified. The Chamber Accounts for 1612–1613 list performances of a sequence of fourteen plays, the first being “ffilaster,” the last “Love lyes a bleedinge” (alternative titles of the same play):5 Mr. Barroll admits that “Philaster seems to have been played twice.” Elsewhere he prints a list which shows that The Merchant of Venice was staged at court on February 10 and 12, 1605—he does not tell us that the play was repeated “by the K’s Comm[an]d.”6 The assumption that plays were not repeated at court, underpinning Mr. Barroll’s chronological speculations, is not easy to justify.

While the “traditional maneuvers” may be less than satisfactory for dating Shakespeare’s plays, some of Mr. Barroll’s methods beget skepticism as well. And what is the outcome? He argues for “clusters of Shakespeare plays emerging in brief periods of intense productivity”: after 1602 “a two-year hiatus, then Othello and Measure for Measure in 1604, sixteen to twenty-two months of further hiatus, then Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear by the end of 1606.” This is to “correlate performance opportunities with probable dates of first production,” and assumes that first productions followed hard upon composition. I shall be surprised if the new dates he proposes find a place in future biographies.

What I liked in Politics is the determination to question received ideas. One chapter, “Shakespeare without King James,” contends that others “have overstated the power and significance of Shakespeare and also of plays in general at the royal Stuart court,” and makes out an interesting case. (Mr. Fraser writes of the players’ “trust in the King, and the ever-closer connection between the Crown and the stage.”) The king watched plays at times of festivity, keeping up a court tradition; a contemporary observer said, however, that “it seems he takes no extraordinary pleasure in them. The Queen and Prince were more the players’ friends, for on other nights they had them privately.” From 1603 to 1616 acting companies were paid by the crown only twice outside their regular playing times, “for the visit of the King of Denmark in…1606, and for the delayed wedding festivities of Elizabeth of Bohemia.” Mr. Barroll warns that the king did not attend all court performances, and argues that the royal patent issued to the King’s Men so soon after Queen Elizabeth’s death is unlikely to have been instigated by James himself, who had other preoccupations: “a powerful intercessor at court” best explains it, the strongest candidate being the Earl of Pembroke, the later dedicatee of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

It is a pity that Mr. Barroll feels obliged to downgrade players more generally. He believes that they lacked respectability and “were never, jauntily, Lord So-and-So’s Men as in current critical parlance; they were always the Servants of the Lord Chamberlain, the Servants of the Lord Admiral, the Servants of the Earl of Worcester.” I have no brief or wish to defend current critical parlance, but observe in passing that Philip Henslowe, theater owner, referred in his diary to “the earle of susex his men,” “the Quenes men,” “my Lorde chamberlen men,” etc.7 More to the point, being a servant—and of course many players were officially servants—did not imply loss of respectability, for even gentlemen could be described as servants to a social or feudal superior. Shakespeare (like other player-servants) called himself a gentleman in his will, and was a respected figure long before he retired to Stratford.

Mr. Barroll sees the players as “common players,” whose “importance in the scheme of things [at court] has been greatly exaggerated.” One would like to know what the three earls of Pembroke, Montgomery, and Southampton would have said in reply, or Queen Anne or Prince Henry. Be that as it may, one player did win proper recognition in his own sphere, if not at court. The man vilified as an “absolute Johannes factotum” in 1592 was named more respectfully in 1600: Much Ado and Henry IV, Part 2, were entered in the Stationers’ Register as “by Master Shakespeare.” These entries are thought to have been copied from the play-books, and, if so, they indicate how his immediate colleagues thought of him circa 1598, at the age of thirty-four. Master Shakespeare! James I, the wisest fool in Christendom, may have been indifferent (I regard this as not proven); in 1598, however, wise stationers began to print Shakespeare’s name on play title-pages, and he was hailed in print as a priceless national asset. “As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.”8

  1. 1

    The New York Review, October 13, 1988.

  2. 2

    E. K. Chambers, “Plague Records,” in The Elizabethan Stage, four volumes (Oxford University Press, 1924), Vol. 4, pp. 345 ff.

  3. 3

    E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, two volumes (Oxford University Press, 1930), Vol. 2, p. 249.

  4. 4

    Chambers, William Shakespeare, Vol. 2, p. 335.

  5. 5

    Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 4, p. 180.

  6. 6

    Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 4, p. 172.

  7. 7

    Henslowe’s Diary, edited by R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 20–21.

  8. 8

    Chambers, William Shakespeare, Vol. 2, p. 194.

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