William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

“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.

That eminently sensible conclusion, however, is unacceptable to those biographers, beginning with E.A.J. Honigmann in Shakespeare: The Lost Years (1985), convinced that the “William Shakeshafte” mentioned as a family retainer in the 1581 will of Alexander Houghton, the wealthy Catholic landowner in Lancashire, was really the young man from Stratford under a slightly different name. (One, as it happens, common in Lancashire itself.) According to this line of thought, Robert Cottam, the secretly Catholic master at Stratford’s grammar school, dispatched his most promising pupil to the north to serve the Houghtons either as a schoolmaster or to augment the group of players maintained by the family. There the young Shakespeare became confirmed in the fervent Catholicism later registered everywhere (for those who can decipher the hidden message) in the poems and plays.

Richard Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance (2004) has been followed in 2005 by Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. Both books are determined to establish the writer Coleridge once praised for his fine impartiality as, on the contrary, a man dominated by a passionate but of necessity covertly expressed adherence to the Church of Rome. The application to Shakespeare’s work of codes based on ciphers (once dear to the Baconians) has never quite recovered from the blow dealt to it by the spoof revelation in 1957 by two professional cryptographers of the hidden message in Julius Caesar that “Theodore Roosevelt is the true author of this play but I, Bacon, stole it from him and have the credit.”2 Both Wilson and Asquith employ by preference misty allegorical readings or (in the case of Asquith) a set of “coded” words (“fair,” “dark,” “high,” “low,” “tempest,” “nightingale,” “phoenix,” “shadow,” “substance,” etc.) supposedly communicating to the Catholic faithful among the theater audience a shadowy other drama (often embarrassingly at odds with the one more straightforwardly—not to mention interestingly—being acted on the stage) and discernible for the most part only by them. (Just how many receptive and clued-in Catholics may have been present among the three thousand–odd spectators filling the Globe is an issue neither she nor Wilson want to address.) The problems generated by both these books are manifold and, in the case of Asquith, come near (in Hamlet’s words) to “breaking down the pales and forts of reason.”

Although Asquith lists Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare in her bibliography, she never refers to it in the body of her own book. That may or may not have something to do with the awkward fact that the two of them tend to come up with different and often conflicting Catholic codes and meanings within the individual texts they consider. Wilson, for instance, identifies Portia’s house at Belmont in The Merchant of Venice with the recusant Montague family, suggesting an allusion both to their surname and to one of the estates they owned. Belmont, for him, is a great recusant house where “mercy… redeems the mercenariness of the Protestant market” in Venice, and Portia, as the epitome of “matriarchal Catholicism,” presides in private over the rites and festivals of the Roman Church while providing a safe haven for her coreligionists. Asquith, on the other hand, looking at the same play, manages to identify Portia as the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, besieged by suitors representing Catholic Europe (Aragon), Protestant Europe (the “dark” Morocco), and (in Bassanio) her loyal English subjects, indebted—as Bassanio is to Antonio—to the country’s old-style Catholic identity. The vindictive Shylock becomes, in her reading, a rather improbable representative Puritan.

Asquith is nothing if not ingenious, and she works out her allegory in considerable detail, arguing that this “shadowplay” would have been obvious not only to Elizabeth—who will have recognized herself as Portia, and also the plea to her for religious tolerance—but communicated itself even to some powerful Protestants in the audience, perhaps one of those Cecils for whom Asquith appears to entertain an almost personal animosity. (Shakespeare, she thinks, portrayed Robert Cecil explicitly as Richard III.) Hence what she describes as the lamentable four-year period of “apostasy” forced upon Shakespeare after The Merchant of Venice, during which he was obliged to abandon or temper his “elegantly encrypted appeals” before returning to them with a difference in Julius Caesar.

Most readers are likely to find these elaborate allegories, “discovered” in play after play, less than persuasive, let alone internally consistent. Edmund Spenser, that consummate allegorist, after introducing Archimago in Book I of The Faerie Queene as a black-gowned hermit fingering a rosary, then ensured that all of his subsequent actions in the poem would register as those of a duplicitous Catholic in league with evil powers. Asquith, by contrast, can seldom make her allegorical interpretations fit plays as a whole, let alone do justice to the intricacies of Shakespeare’s characters or even plots. Certainly she distorts or leaves out many things vividly part of any playgoer’s or reader’s experience. She is also obliged to ignore the intractable King John, with its scheming papal legate and monkish poisoner, in its entirety, and declare absurdly that the equally awkward Henry VIII, despite its position in the First Folio, was ascribed to Shakespeare only as the result of a Protestant conspiracy in which the real author, that despicable toady John Fletcher, colluded. Even Wilson, although he certainly shoves both plays under the carpet as quickly as he can, never goes as far as that.

Asquith’s approach resembles the classic Wittgensteinian rabbit/duck. When looking at the plays, you can choose to see the Catholic rabbit with which she is overwhelmingly concerned or the rather more interesting and demanding duck—Shakespeare’s characters and their actions presented in and for themselves. What you cannot do, as with the drawing, is register them simultaneously, whether in the theater or on the printed page. And this matters. Even with Shakespeare’s Ovidian Venus and Adonis, a poem Wilson and Asquith, for once, agree in decoding as Queen Elizabeth oppressing the young Earl of Southampton, that great hope of Catholic resistance in England, the verse itself defeats even the most determined efforts to hold that idea in mind while at the same time responding to the carefully delineated eroticism of this impasse between an irresistible force (the goddess of Love) and Adonis, the immovable object of her frustrated and unequivocally sexual desire.

There is also the problem of Asquith’s innumerable inaccuracies and misunderstandings of Shakespeare’s texts. That the citizens of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors should confuse the native Antipholus with his Syracusan twin is entirely understandable. That Asquith should do the same, throwing the plot into chaos, is not. Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not offering to “share” Sylvia with his friend Proteus when he announces “All that was mine in Sylvia I give thee,” a nonsensical idea reiterated throughout the book. He wholly relinquishes his claim. Page 297 alone manages to refer to Alonso in The Tempest as “Alphonso,” describe him as duke of Naples, rather than its king, invent for Gonzalo a nonexistent comparison of the courtiers’ garments seemingly new-dyed by salt water to “players’ costumes,” and misread Prospero’s account of the witch Sycorax (predictably yet another caricature of Queen Elizabeth) arriving on the island “with child” as meaning she already had a small Caliban trotting by her side. (Never mind that he is later identified as “the son that she did litter here.”) As for Asquith’s various coded terms (“fair”/”high” meaning Catholic, “dark”/”low” signifying Protestant, and all the rest), she pinpoints them in the texts when they serve her purpose, and ignores them when they do not or, even worse, are applied by Shakespeare in ways patently at odds with her allegorical scheme.

Hamlet’s indignant question to his mother, “Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed/And batten on this moor?,” can just about be wrestled into a fair/high Catholic identity for Old Hamlet, set against a low/dark Protestant one for his villainous younger brother. But what then is to be done with Horatio’s Act I description of the grizzled black beard (“a sable silvered”) that renders Old Hamlet’s ghost at one with his living person? Asquith doesn’t say. Shadowplay is dominated by its author’s clearly passionate personal commitment to the Catholic faith. She is enterprising and imaginative, and one would like to see her bring these qualities and the assiduity of much of her historical research to some future and more appropriate study of the poet and martyr Robert Southwell, or perhaps Sir Thomas More. The Shakespeare book, however, simply will not do.

Most biographies, John Updike has observed, “are really just novels with indexes.”3 That seems especially true with lives of Shakespeare. Peter Ackroyd’s rather arrogantly subtitled Shakespeare: The Biography, although its flights of fancy are far less extreme than Asquith’s, also trespasses upon the terrain of fiction. So, “we may imagine [Shakespeare] to have been a singularly competitive small boy” and “no doubt easily bored.” As a man, he was apparently “given to lustfulness but fastidious in other particulars,” something which, we are told, “by a curious chance consorts well with the imagery of the plays where there are plentiful references to bawdiness, but where there is also evidence of a general sensitivity to unpleasant sights or smells.” And so on, ad infinitum. Through a method often reminiscent of Caroline Spurgeon’s in her 1935 book, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Ackroyd ransacks the plays for “evidence” of Shakespeare’s own personality, his particular likes and dislikes. He is also given to totally unfounded pronouncements about Shakespeare’s creative processes, claiming not only that he put “a particle of himself in all of his characters” but that in every single play there is one character that the dramatist intended to act on the stage himself. The book is overlong, repetitious, and written in a kind of perfervid prose that quickly becomes tiring. It is also filled with aesthetic judgments of the most dubious kind, as when Ackroyd dismisses Measure for Measure (along with All’s Well That Ends Well) as “an abortive exercise in comic form…. A dark thought took wing into a dark valley which, once thoroughly investigated, proved barren and boring. That is all.” Or when he manages to reduce King Lear to a “meditation” on the evils of dividing a kingdom.

All in all, it is a great relief to turn from Wilson, Asquith, and Ackroyd to James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. The very last sentence of the epilogue to this consistently intelligent and informative study makes the biographical position of its author clear: “More so, perhaps, than any writer before or since, Shakespeare held the keys that opened the hearts and minds of others, even as he kept a lock on what he revealed about himself.” With admirable restraint, Shapiro sets out to chronicle the public events of 1599—its major news items, as it were—without speculating unduly about Shakespeare’s own response to them. He is content (to adapt Hamlet’s words to the players) to show “the body of the year, its form and pressure,” and to situate Shakespeare with respect to such matters as the death of Edmund Spenser, the clandestine dismantling of the old Theatre in Shoreditch and its rebirth as the Bankside Globe, Essex’s unhappy campaign in Ireland, the rumors of an “invisible Armada” which put both the authorities and the general public on high alert, and the publication of The Passionate Pilgrim and of John Hayward’s risky History of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV. As Shapiro moves from late winter 1598 through the autumn of 1599, he deftly weaves in an account of Shakespeare’s artistic development and achievement during these months, but without doing more than suggest how the two trajectories might have come to interact in Shakespeare’s consciousness.

There is a great deal, however, in this book that genuinely illuminates the plays and the man who wrote them. Shapiro is particularly fine in his detailed account of how the timbers of the Shoreditch theater were salvaged and stored (not, as often claimed, ferried at once across the Thames) and just what kind of carpentry and weather conditions were required in reusing them for the Globe. He makes the campaign in Ireland vividly (and horrifyingly) present to the reader, as it must have been for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and for the first time (to my knowledge) provides a detailed account of exactly what Shakespeare would have seen in the various rooms at Whitehall he had to walk through whenever he and his company of players performed at court. It is possible to feel that Shapiro is sometimes led by his focus on 1599 and the works Shakespeare produced then (Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and the first draft of Hamlet) unfairly to denigrate those that immediately followed—the supposedly “formulaic” and “less inspired” Twelfth Night, for instance, or Troilus and Cressida, which he castigates as “too unmoored and too bitter.” That is perhaps understandable. Certainly it does not significantly diminish the value of the book as a whole.

By electing to write what is in effect as much the biography of a year as of Shakespeare himself, Shapiro has adroitly managed to avoid the pitfalls to which other recent lives of Shakespeare seem depressingly prone. Here, the analysis offered by David Ellis in That Man Shakespeare: Icon of Modern Culture is wonderfully helpful and apposite. Nothing can rival Samuel Schoenbaum’s magnificent and massive Shakespeare’s Lives, that witty and exhaustive account of all the biographical attempts from the very beginning, published initially in 1970, and subsequently brought up to the 1980s in its revised edition. Schoenbaum died, however, in 1996. One can only speculate about what he would have made of all the outpourings of the last decade. Ellis, however, when he turns in his concluding chapter from assembling an anthology of passages (fictional and nonfictional) which have helped to construct Shakespeare’s image over the centuries, and addresses instead “what kinds of methods have to be used by those who, with no new information available, feel constrained to produce new biographies,” proves to be both shrewd and perceptive.

There are, he suggests, six basic strategies employed by most of the Shakespeare biographers of our time. These he enumerates as (1) “the argument from absence,” meaning that where there is silence, as with proof of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, there must have been a need for secrecy that effectively proves the case; (2) “minding your language”—the use of what he calls “weasel words” such as “perhaps,” “if,” “probably,” “could have,” “may,” to conceal the fact that we don’t really know; (3) using the plays to reveal distinct features of Shakespeare’s own life and thought; (4) using the sonnets in the same way; (5) shifting the burden onto historical circumstances that apparently elucidate the nature of his private existence; and (6) “the argument from proximity, or joining up the dots,” meaning the deployment of what we know about Shakespeare’s schoolmaster in Stratford, or his relatives and acquaintances, to make the little or nothing actually established about him go a long way. As it happens, none of the biographies under consideration in this review had appeared in time to be examined by Ellis. All, however, with the exception of Shapiro’s, make ample use of at least one and usually several of the expedients he mentions.

Looking at the seemingly never-ending flow of new Shakespeare biographies over the last decade, it is hard not to feel that (barring the unlikely emergence of any important new information) a moratorium on such works really ought to be imposed. There may still be a book to write about just why lives of Shakespeare continue to proliferate—and to sell—as there is for a proper investigation of the psychology uniting all those continued attempts to demonstrate that he was only the front man for the true author, whether Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Bacon, Sir Henry Neville, or Mary Sidney. Meanwhile, it is tempting to read a different meaning into that wonderful Borges short story “Everything and Nothing.” In the story, a Shakespeare haunted by the fact that he has never possessed any character or personality of his own, while endowing so many fictional beings with both these things, complains to God. And God’s voice answers him out of the whirlwind: “I, too, am not I; I dreamed the world as you, Shakespeare, dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one.”4 Shakespeare’s biographers too, in a slightly different sense, have managed to create a man who is “many, yet no one.”

This Issue

May 11, 2006