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The One and Only

Others abide our question,” Matthew Arnold famously declared of Shakespeare in 1844, “Thou art free./We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge.” Biographers, he suggested, might as well interrogate Mont Blanc about its personal history and opinions. Yet the interrogations continue. Indeed, they seem alarmingly on the increase. Since 1996, every year has seen the publication of at least one and sometimes several large-scale new attempts not only to chronicle the life of the glover’s son from rural Warwickshire who became England’s greatest poet and dramatist, but to reach out beyond the few stark and largely enigmatic facts to uncover his personality and private beliefs. The year 2005 alone saw no fewer than four of them.

To these must be added unremitting efforts by the anti-Stratfordians to demonstrate that an impartial scrutiny of the career of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or some other aristocrat—Sir Henry Neville and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, have joined the usual list of suspects within recent months1—reveals him or her to be the true but craftily hidden author of plays and poems supposedly incomprehensible as the work of a lowly provincial grammar school boy turned professional actor: a man so callous and grossly insensitive that in his last will and testament, he left his wife of thirty-four years nothing but the Stratford household’s “second-best bed.”

That long-since-vanished bed provides as good an example as any of the uncertainties among which Shakespeare’s biographers grope. Was this odd bequest perhaps not insulting at all but a tender singling out of the marital bed, as opposed to the less personal one reserved for guests? (Even though Shakespeare, most of whose adult life was spent in London, can only occasionally have shared it with the wife he left behind in the country.) In any case, was not the former Anne Hathaway legally entitled to the income from one third of her late husband’s quite substantial estate? Was the second-best bed specified only because it had belonged originally to the Hathaways in Shottery, and so should remain in the family? But then, why was this single reference to Anne an apparent afterthought, belatedly inserted in the will, and then without the usual formulaic “beloved wife”? Had he come to dislike her?

Biographers come up with one answer or another according to individual bias—just as they do when it comes to the thorny question of whether Shakespeare’s sonnets were published with or without his consent in 1609, the authenticity of their sequential ordering, when they were written, and whether the young man addressed in them is the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Pembroke (or perhaps both), the “rival poet” Marlowe or Chapman, the “dark lady” Emilia Lanier, Mary Fitton, or… While still others insist that these are all inappropriate speculations about brilliant literary exercises, poems neither personal nor autobiographical in the least.

Shakespeare’s biographers have a way of justifying their endeavors by informing readers that more, in fact, is known about his life than about that of any other literary figure in the period, with the exception of Ben Jonson. What they don’t like to add is that our knowledge of Jonson’s year-by-year existence is not only enormous compared with the totality of what can be gleaned (mostly from scattered and laconic legal or church records) about Shakespeare’s but of a strikingly different provenance and kind. We have many of the private letters Jonson wrote, a detailed record of his conversation, and an impressive body of explicitly self-revelatory poetry and prose. We know exactly who Jonson’s many friends and patrons were, where he traveled and with whom he stayed, when and why he suffered prison sentences, and when his private library (along with several as yet unpublished works) was destroyed by fire. He also recorded in some detail what he thought about Shakespeare as a dramatist and (more briefly but affectionately) as a man. Shakespeare’s reciprocal view of Jonson, apart from the fact that he acted in two of his plays and (according to legend) was instrumental in getting one of them accepted by his own theater company, typically remains a blank.

Both men suffered the early loss of a first-born son. Hamnet Shakespeare’s death, aged eleven, was recorded at Stratford in August 1596 but neither its cause, Shakespeare’s whereabouts at the time, nor even whether he left London for the funeral is known. Benjamin Jonson junior died of the plague in London, at the age of seven, in November 1603, while his father was staying at Connington, Robert Cotton’s country estate. The calamity was prefigured by an ominous dream Jonson described to his former schoolmaster Camden just before the news reached him there. The boy had appeared to him bearing the red mark used to isolate London’s infected houses cut into his forehead. What Jonson felt he articulated later in the tender poem “On My First Son,” in which the grieving father bids farewell to the child who was “Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” Shakespeare left no equivalent testimony, impelling biographers to scrabble about desperately among the plays for passages that might somehow reflect his presumable paternal grief—a task made more difficult by uncertainties about their chronology. “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” appear to have been interchangeable baptismal names at the time but Shakespeare’s Hamlet, although certainly concerned with fathers and (adult) sons, is difficult to push back before 1599/1600, leaving biographers to argue (with no supporting evidence) for a personal sensitivity on the subject still influential then, and lingering on in plays composed many years later. When Stephen Daedalus, in Joyce’s Ulysses, fantasizes about the Hamlet/Hamnet equation—Shakespeare in the part of the Ghost addressing Burbage’s Hamlet, and thinking “you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen, Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway”—he is rudely interrupted by Russell for “prying into the family life of a great man,” something “interesting only to the parish clerk.” The “prying” continues nevertheless, often taking even more extravagant forms. All the plays become documents to be ransacked for biographical clues—clues that turn out, unsurprisingly, to be both tendentious and conflicting.

The principal subject of biographical dispute in recent years, however, has not been the infamous “second-best bed.” (Although that may attract renewed interest after the publication of Germaine Greer’s projected life of Mrs. Shakespeare.) It is the question of Shakespeare’s religious affiliation, in particular the possibility that although christened, married, and finally buried according to the rites of the Anglican Church, he was secretly a Catholic. Here again, the comparison with Jonson, the posthumous son of a Protestant divine, is illuminating. We know exactly when—1598—Jonson was converted to the Catholic faith, by a priest who visited him in Newgate Prison while he awaited sentence there for killing the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Twelve years later, he returned to the Reformed religion, draining off (so he told William Drummond in 1619) the entire cup of communion wine in his enthusiasm at the reconciliation. He was, as he also told Drummond, tolerant of both branches of the Christian faith, being “versed in both.” The situation with regard to Shakespeare is altogether less clear-cut.

According to the unreliable late-seventeenth-century divine Richard Davies, he “died a papist.” Davies was also the source of the legend (reiterated in the early eighteenth century by Rowe in the brief life of Shakespeare he appended to his 1709 edition of the works) that the dramatist was obliged to flee Stratford for London after being apprehended poaching deer in Sir Thomas Lucy’s park at nearby Charlecote. (The awkward fact that Lucy did not possess a deer park at the time emerged many years later.) Paradoxically, the poaching story proved more welcome than not to biographers eager for details more exciting than Shakespeare’s various real estate investments, delinquent taxes, or the fact that he hoarded sixty bushels of malt during a time of scarcity.

It is sobering to reflect that by crowning a brief but undeniably spectacular life by getting murdered in 1593, Christopher Marlowe has ensured persistent support as the one nonaristocratic candidate for authorship of “Shakespeare’s” plays. It is possible, however, to add some glamour and mystery to the otherwise unremarkable recorded life of the man from Stratford by positing a perilous and carefully concealed Catholicism: something presumably fostered not only by family upbringing but by the influence of Robert Cottam, a master at the local grammar school with links to the Houghtons, a powerful recusant family—i.e., Roman Catholics who refused to accept the authority of the Church of England—in Lancashire, and beyond them to the Counter-Reformation infiltration of England from Jesuit and other seminaries abroad, and so with the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion and with the Jesuits Henry Garnet and Robert Persons. This, to a considerable extent, has been the driving idea behind recent Shakespeare biographies, even Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004), bestowing upon it a measure of cautious acceptance.

The jury is still out as to whether the incomplete “Spiritual Testament” discovered by a workman in 1757, between the rafters and the roof of the Shakespeare family house in Henley Street and shown then to the great scholar Edmund Malone, is or is not genuine proof of the recalcitrant Catholic faith of Shakespeare’s father, an outwardly conforming Protestant. Malone, who transcribed the booklet, later came to doubt the authenticity of the original—by then inconveniently lost. That the document itself was drawn up according to a standard Jesuit model has now been established—but not John Shakespeare’s personal, signed endorsement. Certainly it was not (as it stipulated) buried with him in 1601.

Between Henry VIII’s repudiation of papal authority and the Catholic Church in 1534 and the accession of James I in 1603 there had, of course, been a bewildering number of changes in the official state religion, Protestantism becoming even more firmly entrenched during the brief reign of Edward VI, then radically overturned on the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary in 1553, only to be reinstated in 1558 by Elizabeth. It was small wonder that many subjects who had lived through all or even some of these dizzying oscillations should develop what James Shapiro, in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, aptly describes as a kind of faith resembling those Catholic wall paintings in the Guild Chapel at Stratford, some of whose images remained dimly visible beneath the whitewash with which they had formally been covered only a few months before Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, by order of the very town council on which his father sat. As Shapiro writes:

To argue that the Shakespeares were secretly Catholic or, alternatively, mainstream Protestants misses the point that except for a small minority at one doctrinal extreme or other, those labels failed to capture the layered nature of what Elizabethans, from the queen on down, actually believed.

  1. 1

    Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein, The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare (Longman/Pearson Education, 2005); Robin P. Williams, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? (Peachpit Press, 2006).

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