V&A Images, London/Art Resource

‘Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud’; miniature, thought by some to show William Shakespeare, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588

Toward the end of his recent book The Tainted Muse, Robert Brustein quotes the opening of a famous poem about Shakespeare:

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge.

The bard had managed, Matthew Arnold continued, to “walk on earth unguess’d at,” too shadowy and various for anyone even to start the interview. This proposition wasn’t strictly correct. Before and after Arnold, Shakespeare had taken quite a few questions and been abundantly guessed at. All kinds of people were sure they knew who he was, who his mistress was, why he left his wife his second-best bed; were certain that he was lame, that he had syphilis, that he was not Shakespeare at all but Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.

But a certain mystery remained, and remains. The mystery is essential to Borges’s sense, for example, that Shakespeare was “everything and nothing.” And modern scholarship had until recently made a reasonable peace with what it didn’t know, even deriving a wry discipline from its limitations. “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual,” Stephen Booth wrote in his great commentary on the sonnets. “The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.” Only a year or so ago, in his Contested Will (2010), a witty and lively history of the claims of other contenders for the Shakespeare portfolio, James Shapiro firmly said, “Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don’t doubt that he did, I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when or where he does so.”

Recent biographers strike this note of caution too. Stephen Greenblatt, near the beginning of his Will in the World (2004), says, “There are huge gaps in knowledge that make any biographical study of Shakespeare an exercise in speculation.” Jonathan Bate, in Soul of the Age (2009), recalls Barbara Everett’s insistence that Shakespeare’s biography “has to be…in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably,” and says himself that “there is no way of knowing whether the dark lady was created out of an imagined relationship or inspired by a real affair.” Indeed pretty much every serious writer on Shakespeare makes a disclaimer or two of this kind at some point.

Yet something has changed in the realm of the Shakespeare mystery, and the language of several of these critical quotations half-opens a door it may seem to close. Booth and Shapiro float possibilities (the first says that the sonnets “probably reflect a lot that is true about their author,” and the second, as we have seen, doesn’t doubt the presence of personal experience in the poems and plays). Greenblatt embarks on a very successful exercise in the speculation he warns against, and Everett’s words allow quite a lot of room for the figurative and the unproven.

Some of us may yearn a bit for the old austerity in the biographical interpretation of literature, but I’m afraid it has come to seem rather evasive. The shift is, as Shapiro says, part of “the way we read now,” related to our devotion to memoirs and gossip and our belief (or longing to believe) that every fiction is a document in disguise—even and especially when it turns out that many a supposed document is a fiction in disguise. Today the once-admirable principle of not saying more than we know can look like a sheepish failure to say what we feel or think. Come on now, the time says to us. You don’t have a total grasp of Shakespeare’s sexuality or politics, or anything else, but you have something to say, don’t you? So say it. Each of the books under review has heard this invitation and responded to it, although each in a rather different way.

Stanley Wells’s book concerns the writer’s “profound though often troubled reflections on the relationship between sex and love.” Wells brings to the task all the skills of a great editor, formidable knowledge of the works and their contexts, and a cheerful tolerance for everyone’s sexual habits. “Heaven help us,” he says, expressing his surprise that we should be ashamed of our private parts, and he calls public penitence for “incontinence” in the early seventeenth century a form of “entertainment for the congregation.”

After informative chapters on sexual rules and manners in Shakespeare’s time, on sex in the poetry of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and on what little is known about Shakespeare’s own sex life, Wells turns to a detailed recension of the plays and the poems, exploring bawdy jokes, representations of desire, jealousy, aging lovers, extreme images of women, and depictions of same-sex love. He devotes a whole chapter to Romeo and Juliet. The manner is a little schoolmasterly (“let’s discuss the dramatic fun that can be created out of situations of sexual desire”).


Wells respects the way we used to read, but would like to move toward a more contemporary note. He hears “the ring of authenticity” in the anguish of certain of the sonnets, and says that is one of the grounds for his “personal belief” that many of the sonnets “reflect circumstances of the author’s own emotional and sexual life.” He is a little nervous about this claim, though, and thinks it can’t be defended on “purely intellectual grounds.” He remarks that it is “perhaps…a little curious” that Shakespeare had a thirteen-year-old daughter when he wrote the role of Juliet, but if “critics suggest” that Juliet’s father harbors a “concealed incestuous desire” for his daughter, Wells draws a stern line: “This is taking subtext to extremes. Interpretations like these can be neither proved nor disproved.” This kind of caution can sound a little desperate.

Don Paterson by contrast believes that guesswork is a kind of proof if you put your mind to it. His Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets has, he hopes, the feel of the diary “that it was.” This is a more complicated claim than it seems, and chimes nicely with many of the questions raised by the sonnets themselves. Paterson’s language (“nah,” “whatever,” “yikes,” and so on) is so full of old slang and broad imitations of comic accents that it seems like the performance of a man embarrassed by his own seriousness, determined to maintain his reputation as one of the lads at the pub even if he does have to talk about iambs now and again. It’s worth putting up with this tone if you can, because there is a certain pleasure in finding phrases like “ghostly fricative and affricate music” and “dodgy as hell” on the same page, and because the readings themselves, even if they don’t go beyond jokey paraphrase in their thinner moments, are often urgently grounded in language, feeling, and a sense of the trade (“If anyone ever tells you line-beginnings are as important as line-endings, ignore them”). Paterson has a poet’s argument to make about this poetry and a theory of Shakespeare’s personality into the bargain.

Paterson accepts the traditional view of the shape of the collection of sonnets. The story opens formally, becomes intricately passionate, and then, as Paterson puts it, the initial relationship starts “coming apart at the seams.” In this view the first seventeen sonnets are written to a young man, encouraging him to marry and procreate; the next 109 are a sequential evocation of a love affair with the same young man; the following twenty-six are addressed to a “dark lady” who is also entangled with the young man; and the last two are stylized evocations of the love god.

Paterson’s language is so breezy that you begin to think the biography he finds in the sonnets may be a form of fiction in line with his jaunty language. Of what he regards as the lamentable last line of Sonnet 17—“You should live twice: in it [“some child of yours”], and in my rhyme”—he remarks, “I’ll bet WS was disgusted with himself,” and of Sonnets 74 and 75 he says, “I wonder if he wrote this while a little hungover.” The sonnets for him are “screamingly autobiographical”; it would be “almost perverse not to” read them in relation to the life. Why “almost,” we may wonder, but the answer is not long in coming, since the screams turn out to be intermittent. Patterson writes: “You do have the sense of the curtain parting for a moment, revealing the real messy life behind the performance of the Sonnets.”

Paterson’s own distinguished career as a poet (and his demonstrated energy and range as a reader) point him in two directions: he knows many poets have messy lives, and he knows they all perform, even pretend. His Shakespeare is finally the figure he makes up from his attention to the poems, the person he can’t not see there, and like Wells he recognizes the ring of authenticity when he hears it, even if the ringtone is different.

Paterson finds traces of the poet in the sonnets, but not in the plays, and it’s worth pausing over this perception. He thinks Shakespeare has an unusual “ability…to vanish his ego”—suddenly Arnold’s absentee poet makes a reappearance—and “an almost superhuman ability to suspend his own personality…and permit the full engagement of his vast imaginative sympathies.” But that’s the playwright. The sonnets are about love and “love has different licences.” In love “the ego cannot be dismissed…it’s the beating heart of the whole psychodrama.” There are two good questions to be asked here. Is there a psychodrama in the sonnets, and is it Shakespeare’s?


There is a strong tradition of saying yes to the first question. T.S. Eliot said it, although not admiringly (“Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art”), and Wells has a similar view, as we have seen. Greenblatt, in Will in the World, writes of an effect of “almost painful intimacy” in the sonnets. Even John Kerrigan, who is firmly opposed to post-Romantic psychological readings of the sonnets, thinks “there are so many points…at which obscurity appears to stem…from an unwillingness to grapple painful emotions into form that it seems reasonable to infer a troubled author behind the poetic ‘I.'” I’m almost convinced of the presence of the “stuff” in the sonnets, and of the “painful emotions” behind them, and I certainly don’t think they are a mere formal exercise. But then I’m not sure a formal exercise necessarily excludes painful emotions, and it seems to me far from impossible that a great poet could simulate a slippage of control, successfully represent a failed grappling with feeling and form.

Do we really believe that the writer who invented the characters and language of Hamlet and King Lear and the darkly disturbed world of Measure for Measure would be unable to invent a troubled poet whose difficulties were not copies of his own? This is a version of the thought that gives Wells pause: “The man who could portray the emotional and sexual anguish of characters such as Troilus and Othello could have written no less convincingly of such passions in non-dramatic poems.”

Robert Brustein finds an elegant emblem for his approach to Shakespeare in an image from Hamlet, and we might well borrow this figure for the whole set of questions we are looking at. “This is th’imposthume [i.e., the swelling or abcess] of much wealth and peace,” Hamlet says,

That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.

We don’t know what’s going on with Shakespeare the man but something (rather than nothing) is. It’s a pity that there’s no evidence, that the imposthume breaks only inwardly, without visible “cause,” but it is possible to call evidence what other people call fiction. “Certain prejudices and obsessions,” Brustein says, “sometimes leap out of [Shakespeare’s] plays and enter the realm of social and moral discourse, springing, as it were, from the root of a hidden imposthume.” It wasn’t so hidden after all, just biding its time. Brustein’s project is to identify Shakespeare’s prejudices by exploring his obsessions, namely (he devotes chapters to each of these elements) his recurring misogyny, his distaste for effeminate men, his admiration for manly fellows, his distrust of democracy, his racism, and his encroaching atheism.

How do we know Shakespeare had these obsessions? Brustein argues that they occur with such “frequency,” “vehemence,” and “urgency” in the works that we can’t treat them as just another aspect of plot or character or background. But then how do we know that these are Shakespeare’s obsessions rather than those of his age, or those he saw in his age? We don’t, but Brustein’s overall line of thought is particularly suggestive here. Why should we not assume that Shakespeare was of his time rather than above it, or better than it was? Surely he shares with his own characters many of the sentiments that have “been inhaled from the cultural air”? I think of a remark of William Empson’s with regard to T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism: “A writer had better rise above the ideas of his time, but one should not take offence if he doesn’t.” Perhaps one should take offense, but there is no reason to be surprised.

The problem, though, is not that we have, as Brustein says, “no conclusive way to prove” Shakespeare’s prejudices. We don’t have anything resembling even a tentative proof, and Brustein’s method is too broad to support his intuition. From a series of “defamatory references” to Jews in Two Gentlemen of Verona, I Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, and Macbeth, all of them familiar if noxious contemporary idioms, and spoken by quite different characters, including a witch, Brustein moves to what he calls Shakespeare’s “consistently jaundiced attitude toward Jews.” It’s true that the playwright made a bit of an effort to show some sympathy for Shylock, but Brustein is not letting him off so easily. He cites this character’s famous speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”), only to comment that “one could argue that the same reasoning might be used in defense of a chimpanzee.”

We can’t defend Shakespeare from such attacks on the basis that his plays are plays. This, Brustein says, is “the language of legal disclaimers.” But we can’t convict him on such arguments either, and it’s probably wise to remember that there are guesses and guesses. The biographical speculations of Greenblatt and Bate, for example, are thoroughly grounded and inspectable: alternatives are given, doubts allowed. And as a matter of method, Paterson’s suggestion that Shakespeare was a little hungover while working on Sonnets 74 and 75, however flippant, is at least based on a qualitative judgment of the verse, while Brustein’s not in themselves implausible claims are based chiefly on their actual unprovability, as if this were a virtue. “This will be the most controversial assumption in the book,” he says, evoking the absence of conclusive instances. Well, it can’t really be all that controversial if there is nothing for us to discuss. It’s also worth noting that the accusation of anti-Semitism is graver than that of taking a glass or two too many.

It’s hard not to feel that in this book Brustein’s ordinarily very active sense of performance has been sapped by his sense of decency. Armed with his idea that the Dark Lady sonnets allow us to guess at Shakespeare’s “prejudice against the color black,” Brustein arraigns one of drama’s greatest villains, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, for not being a nice fellow. Aaron delights in the theater of his evil, and delights us while he is at it. He is sorry not for what he has done but for not having done worse, and he understands repentance as a complicated form of immoral regret: “If one good deed in all my life I did/I do repent it from my very soul.” To get a merely prejudiced portrait of a black man out of this splendid figure you have to reduce him to an abstraction, and prefer judgment to all other modes of attention.

Brustein himself sets the standard by which to assess this kind of argument. He has some fine commentary on ghosts—memorably describing Hamlet’s “The rest is silence” as a “comment about the acoustics of the afterlife”—and on the role of the will in Othello and King Lear:

Iago’s paean to the power of Reason will later be rewritten by Rousseau and Robespierre, his tribute to the power of the Will later imagined by Nietzsche. Like Edmund’s musings on a universe dominated by blind nature in King Lear, this speech sets the stage for the French Terror, and, ultimately, for Hitler’s Third Reich.

We may question the conservative tilt of this argument, but there is no doubt that we are seeing a critical mind working at full stretch. It is even possible that Shakespeare, or a piece of him, shared Iago’s views and so can somehow be linked to Hitler. But that possibility is trivial compared to the sheer reach of the idea of what Iago calls “a permission of the will.” And then there is Brustein’s evocation of King Lear as a work that “seems to take place on a cold and friendless planet revolving around a third-rate star.” Is this “morbid,” as Brustein says? Is this Shakespeare’s theology? As Brustein’s own vivid picture suggests, these too are small questions compared to the challenge of thinking what we might say in defense of this bereft planet, or a humanity that finds it has to do without gods.

By Shakespeare’s freedom Arnold meant we couldn’t get at him; he has escaped from us. Stephen Greenblatt means something quite different but not (usually) the lived freedom of the actual man. The first words of his recent book are “Shakespeare as a writer,” and although he evokes the man later in the paragraph (Ben Jonson said he had an “open and free nature”), the figure who dominates the argument is textual, a style of mind found in words.

There is an aspect of a mission here, since as early as Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) Greenblatt was concerned about our profession having become “so oddly diffident and even phobic about literary power,” and he is determined not to be afraid to celebrate. But then the celebration itself can be complicated. A genuine, old-fashioned Romantic Shakespeare, who “seems to have been able to fashion language to say anything he imagined, to conjure up any character, to express any emotion, to explore any idea,” is accompanied by a much warier personage. Shakespeare is “also a figure of limits,” not because he has any obvious restrictions as far as gifts go, but because he devoted his career to the disclosure of a whole range of boundaries and borders, to a sharp investigation of the absolute claims—for church, for state, for self, for love—that were all around him, and that he so distrusted.

After a short introduction, the four main chapters of Greenblatt’s book turn to Shakespeare’s enacted dissent from the ideal featurelessness of beauty—here the Dark Lady gets a much better deal than she does in Paterson and Brustein, or even in Wells; his interest in the point where hatred reaches its limits; his evocations of what Greenblatt calls the dubious “ethics of authority”; and his meditations on the idea of autonomy, especially artistic autonomy, which means that “in the sphere of his sovereign genius the authority of the playwright and poet seems absolutely free and unconstrained.” The figure who emerges in Greenblatt’s book is no dissenter—he is far too interested in what he opposes for that—and at times looks suspiciously like a modern liberal, devoted to the idea of the individual but also worried about it.

In what is perhaps the most original chapter of the book, a version of which appeared in these pages, The Merchant of Venice is seen as offering an ambiguous representation of humanity drawing back from the edge of self-destruction. Doesn’t Shylock hate Antonio infinitely? Isn’t that why he wants his pound of flesh? The answer seems to be yes until he learns he can’t kill Antonio without being killed himself in return. His response to this news is either admirably unheroic or meanly self-preserving, depending on your perspective. In Greenblatt’s words, “He opts for his money…and his life.” How much does he hate Antonio? “Not enough.”*

Greenblatt finds a concentrated image of Shakespeare’s preoccupation with freedom and limits in a strange scene in Measure for Measure. For complicated plot reasons a substitute has to be found for a man sentenced to death, and the likeliest candidate is one Barnardine, a killer who has been in jail for nine years and somehow managed to stave off his beheading. He is described in the play as “careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal.” He’s drunk most of the time; given the chance to escape, he doesn’t take it. When his jailers pretend they are about to “carry him to execution,” he is unmoved. This is a “sketch,” as Greenblatt says, “of a life worth losing.”

Then several remarkable things happen. This man who seems not to care about life says he doesn’t feel like dying: “I will not consent to die this day, that’s certain.” It’s not a matter of his consent, and no one thinks it is. But the Duke, the capricious ruler of this state, decides there are other grounds for sparing Barnardine. He is “a creature unprepared, unmeet for death,” it would be “damnable” to kill him now. And anyway, another prisoner has just died, so he can take the place of this “desperately mortal” fellow. By the end of the play, in what Greenblatt calls a “flurry of irrational pardons,” Barnardine is released.

What is going on here? The man turns out not be needed, he doesn’t care if he dies, he does care if he dies, he gets out of jail. He is, Greenblatt says, “an emblem of the freedom of the artist to remake the world,” but “a most unlikely emblem.” He is the stubbornness of life itself and he is also the beneficiary of the Duke’s sudden scruple. In his release the ungainly killer and the arbitrariness of rule join forces, and behind them we glimpse the writer unraveling probability, showing us what isn’t likely to happen except in a play—and in reality when it takes a break from being realistic.

Crimes and pardon figure at the end of The Tempest too, and, allowing for all kinds of differences in temper and situation, they suggest something of the same mixture of fallible humanity and radical choice. When Prospero addresses the audience, still in character, not quite yet the actor he will become when the applause begins, he ends by saying: “As you from crimes would pardoned be,/Let your indulgence set me free. In Greenblatt’s subtle reading these lines are asking for “protection” for his art and Shakespeare’s; and the basis for this appeal for protection of art itself is “a strange insistence that its weaknesses, faults, and transgressions are secretly shared by those who sit in judgment upon them and who therefore stand equally in need of pardon.” We have to work out what we need our pardons for, but Shakespeare, Greenblatt suggests, is tempted to count his art among his crimes.

At this point we rejoin Brustein’s argument about the will and its long, troubling forward history. If Shakespeare had a “growing skepticism about the claim for autonomy that he had made…or rather a developing sense that the cost of this claim was too high,” then we can perhaps measure the cost, Greenblatt suggests, by remembering that the catchphrase defining autonomy—“liberty to live after one’s own law”—“could best serve as the motto for some of the most disturbing villains who haunted Shakespeare’s imagination.” This is a less comfortable sense of the freedom of the will. It’s all very well to invent the unneeded Barnardine and let him loose, but how do we know what he will get up to?