Brushing up your Shakespeare

In contrasting the two biographies of Shakespeare below, we see the two main strategies which biographers can take. Shakespeare left virtually nothing as evidence of himself. An author then, may fill in the gaps via conjecture, or he can leave a bare-bones account, and write about related but digressionary things.

A year in the life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro uses conjecture: a vast amount of conjecture, to pad out the scarce traces in the historical documents. The author’s choice of conjectures is, however, a good one. He looks at cultural events occurring at the same time, and their effect on the texts of the plays. For example, the invasion of Ireland and how it plays into the concept of nation as expressed in Henry V, or the pending succession crisis in England and the same in Hamlet. It’s well done. It doesn’t really tell you much about Shakespeare, but it does tell you about his working environment, and its solid work I’ve not seen before.

His discussion of Hamlet is brilliant. Shapiro points out that there are two quite different plot lines in the two extant folios of Hamlet. The first folio is longer, unplayably long, and has many excellent lines that are trimmed from the later. The later, however, has a tauter plot. Shapiro notes that editors can’t help popping good lines from the first version back into the second version, and that this muddles Hamlet’s actions, and makes him look like he vacillates.

Now, I’ve always thought that Hamlet was a vacilator. He’s annoyingly so. It turns out that much of this is an artefact of editing. Shapiro’s discussion of the two plot lines, and their distinctness, is really solid work.

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The world as stage  takes the alternative tack: it choses not to conjecture, instead just giving what little evidence we have about Shakespeare. This is an interesting approach, because it gives you a baseline from which to look at what you thought you knew about Shakespeare, and realise how much of it is folklore or conjecture. It’s not quite so interesting a listen (as I listened to both of these in audiobook form, in quick succession) because of its sparseness of detail, but the chapter at the end, where Bryson dismembers the arguments about who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays is certainly worth staying on for.