Boxes inside boxes

Nineteen-seventy-five saw the publication of two works of Shakespeare scholarship that made confident, if understated, claims for their comprehensiveness. The first, Samuel Schoenbaum’s large and beautifully illustrated Documentary Life, sought to settle the matter of the playwright’s biography. It set out to “present a straightforward account of Shakespeare’s Life – in adequate detail, and not shirking vexatious issues like the significance of marriage records and the second-best bed – and to combine that account with facsimiles, faithfully reproduced, of the documents and records which comprise the biographer’s materials”. The second publication was the final volume of Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. As Bullough had stated almost two decades earlier, when the first volume was published, the series would “assemble what the editor believes to be the chief narrative and dramatic sources and analogues of Shakespeare’s plays and poems so as to assist the reader who, not being a specialist, wishes to explore the working of Shakespeare’s mind”. Where Schoenbaum gave bonds and contracts, Bullough gave passages of Holinshed’s ChroniclesPlutarch’s Live, Seneca’s tragedies and the numerous novellas, prose romances, poems and pamphlets that were, in his presentation, the raw ingredients of the plays. Two pillars of Shakespeare’s creativity, his life and his reading, were thus neatly separated and placed on an empirical footing. The non-specialist and scholar alike could look with confidence for answers from Schoenbaum and Bullough.

These projects were the product of a more innocent and optimism age of literary study. Lena Cowen Orlin’s Private Life of William Shakespeare and John Drakakis’s Shakespeare’s Resources stand on the other side of a divide in the subject of English that rose up in the 1980s, bringing in deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, new historicism and other combative schools of thought. It is not that Orlin’s book, at least, is especially theoretical. The high tide of literary theory has receded. All the same, both she and Drakakis inhabit a changed landscape, one in which the Documentary Life and the Narrative and Dramatic Sources look overconfident and too hierarchical in their conception. In their respective fields of biography and source study, Orlin and Drakakis confront, on the one hand, a new sense of the vastness of potential material, and on the other, a nagging doubt about how much of it is relevant or credible. They chip away at the solid pillars left by Schoenbaum and Bullough, but they also build their own less stable, more imaginative and playful structures.

Orlin begins, characteristically, with a sentence about our lack of absolute knowledge: “the date”, she tells us, “of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown.” Schoenbaum, after weighing the evidence (above all, the entry in the Stratford baptismal register on April 26), had concluded, rather cautiously, that we can “reasonably assume” that “Shakespeare was born on either the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd – Friday, Saturday, or Sunday – of April 1564″. For Orlin, even this tentative statement is overconfident. She insists that “the most the records tell us is that a man named John Shakespeare became father to a boy named William on or before 26 April 1564.” Orlin often questions accepted facts in this manner, but hers is not a case of simple, awkward literal-mindedness. There is method to her way of proceeding. She is interested not so much in “facts” as in what she calls “evidence clusters”, and her method is to gather additional evidence, often from far beyond the Shakespeare circle, sometimes running into tens of pages, and to describe this evidence until “each element of the cluster disintegrates under inspection”. The approach is not purely, or even mainly, destructive. Orlin liberates what one might call “alternative facts” and allows these to bloom into full stories, supported by their own “evidence clusters”, which may, or may not, convince her readership. Such stories give us versions of the private life that Schoenbaum insisted could never be accessed from the documents. These stories are vivid and rigorously documented, and Orlin keeps a straight face as she tells them. One wonders, however, if the author is secretly smiling, seeing how far her reader’s belief will stretch.

What, for example, of John Aubrey’s famous anecdote, recorded in the 1680s, that the young Shakespeare was apprenticed as a butcher and that “when he kill’d a Calfe, he would do it in a high style, & make a Speech”? Schoenbaum concluded that Aubrey’s account was marked by “deep” confusion, but in Orlin’s assessment the idea that John Shakespeare arranged for his son’s apprenticeship with one of Stratford’s butchers is “entirely plausible”. She connects the calf-killing story with Nicholas Rowe’s later claim that Shakespeare “made a frequent practice of deer stealing”, and in her analysis “an external logic that links poaching to butchery may ground this cluster of apocryphal evidence” and connect us to some kind of truth. Butchery was “a performative craft”, and Ben Jonson was said by Aubrey to have distracted himself from the manual labor of bricklaying by reciting “some Greek verses out of Homer”. We hear of various Stratford butchers, above all a ne’er-do-well named William Trowte, who appears 350 times in the records court and whose exploits are described at length. Orlin decides to “make room for some play of fancy” and to imagine Trowte as Shakespeare’s “alter ego”. Perhaps he married Anne Hathaway in a bid to escape his fate as an apprentice butcher? Perhaps the marriage reformed him and set him on a literary path?

Orlin, who has delved deep in the Warwickshire archives, works by telling parallel stories, for example of who ran successful businesses, or of other wives who were left second-best beds in their husband’s wills. Hathaway, she admits, is “occluded” in the archives. But, Orlin argues, “it is only by mapping her scattered stars onto the same night sky that we can recognise analogous patterns suggesting that she, too, was a woman running a family business in her husband’s absence: taking in lodgers, leasing out market space, producing malt, brewing beer, harvesting fruit, hosting civic occasions and business meetings, handling credits and debts, and managing the properties that she and her children would inhabit”.

The effect of telling these stories is partly to give a much broader and less stable sense of what Schoenbaum called “the quotidian life of a vanished age”. It is also to trouble the solid outline of traditional Shakespeare biographies. At one point Orlin surveys an “evidence cluster” that connects Shakespeare to Oxford University, where he is “nearly certain to have taken in lectures and sermons in college chapels”. In this case, the “evidence cluster” consists of little more than a resemblance between the cushion featured in the Shakespeare memorial in Stratford and the cushions in a number of Oxford memorials. It feels churlish, however, to weigh the plausibility of Orlin’s imagined lives in this manner. She is flying kites, and it seems not always to matter which stay up and which fall down.

Drakakis is a different kind of scholar to Orlin, but he too is a disrupter and could be said to do with Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources what she does with the Documentary Life. The first two chapters of his book deal with the legacy of Bullough and “myths of origin”. Drakakis finds the idea of ​​“source” too narrow. The sheer scope of materials to which Shakespeare had access, and the circumstances in which the playwright utilized them, he argues, mean that “source” and “authority” imply a “quasi-theological” concept of creation. Instead of “source” or “authority”, Drakakis offers “resources”, a term that, as he uses it, is much more open-ended. A resource could be a book, but it could also be a half-forgotten encounter or, in Shakespeare’s case, the experience of having written an earlier play. The categories of “life” and “reading”, neatly separated by Schoenbaum and Bullough, fuse together in Drakakis’s study.

The middle chapters of Shakespeare’s Resources – which have titles such as “Textual Traffic”, “Trafficking in intertextuality” and “From formula to text” – are labyrinthine and sometimes circular. In the Narrative and Dramatic Sources, Bullough had promised his readers easy access to “the working of Shakespeare’s mind”, but for Drakakis that kind of access is impossible. Each of his chapters is deeply engaged with the history of Shakespeare scholarship, on which he comments with generosity and from which he quotes at length. When it comes to it, however, he is reluctant to make judgments. Any model of Shakespeare’s mind, he argues, will end up being inadequate and anachronistic. Like Orlin, he is interested in stories and in what she would call “evidence clusters”. Once we have gathered a set of plausible theories, “it may simply be a case of noting them while resisting the temptation to make a judgment about which narrative assumes precedence over others.”

Drakakis ranges freely across the canon, but it is to Hamlet that he most often returns. The play has attracted the greatest volume of critical attention, which means that an impossibly vast body of books and experiences have been cited as possible influences on it. Drakakis tracks Hamlet‘s potential sources and analogues, and shows that these sources and analogues, in turn, have their own sources and analogues, which seem at times to haunt Shakespeare’s play. These are boxes inside boxes. The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticusfor example, containing the story of Ameth, borrows from Book 18 of Homer’s Illiad, “which both recuperates and prophesies in a series of complex symbols the details of the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans”. Shakespeare, moreover, read Saxo Grammaticus in Belleforest’s Histories Tragies, which moralized the story and added biblical parallels. All of these narratives are potentially present in Hamlet. Drakakis discusses Derrida’s Specters of Marx and the idea of ​​“hauntology”, which “supplants its near homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that is neither present nor absent”. There is subtle work here on ghosts in Hamletbut, at the end, even the notion of ghosts is too substantial for Drakakis, who returns insistently to the term “resources”.

In his final chapter, having earlier worked through some more theory-heavy models for “Shakespeare’s memory”, Drakakis ends on Shakespeare as a man of the theater who saw hundreds of plays (almost all of which are now lost) and who knew his actors through the parts they had played. Here his focus is on the character Thorello, a jealous husband who appears in the quarto text of Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humor. Shakespeare appears on the acting list of Every Manso must have known it well, and Thorello therefore becomes, for Drakakis, a resource for the jealous husbands of Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and The Winter’s Tale. Ending thus, Drakakis distances himself once more from traditional source study, an academic discipline that threatens to “consume” Shakespeare by restricting him to an overly bookish way of working. He closes on a musical metaphor, presenting Shakespeare as one who could “repeat tunes, recall motifs to mind, imitate themes and memes, improvise on existing material and, on a number of occasions, innovate”.

In their different ways, The Private Life of William Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Resources question the certainties underlying Schoenbaum’s Documentary Life and Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources. Yet these are generous, formidably learned books. Neither Lena Cowen Orlin nor John Drakakis really wishes to do away with their predecessors. Instead they offer provocations, useful correctives and new possibilities. No doubt they will themselves be taken up as strong useful “evidence clusters”.

Bart van Es is Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. His books include a memoir, The Cut Out Girl: A story of war and family, lost and found2018

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