Academic journal article Intertexts

Shakespeare's Biography in His Plays

Academic journal article Intertexts

Shakespeare's Biography in His Plays

Article excerpt

Can one learn or surmise anything significant about Shakespeare's own life from his writings? The film Shakespeare in Love has recently brought the question into focus, even though--or perhaps especially because--that film deliberately plays fast and loose with what we know about Shakespeare's life. The film more or less accurately places him in London as a young man, eager to succeed in the theatre, keenly aware of the success of his great rival, Christopher Marlowe. This Shakespeare lives apart from his wife and children, having left them in Stratford. And thereby hangs a tale. This Shakespeare has a glorious affair with a young woman named Viola de Lessups, after a succession of less romantic trysts with Rosaline and no doubt others. Is there any accuracy in this? We do not know, really, other than the possibly biographical circumstance of an unhappy love relationship with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and a deeply passionate friendship for a well-born young man whom the Sonnets address--a circumstance ignored by the film, interestingly; with so much happy hetero sex to explore in the relationship of Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, the filmmakers were not about to show their Shakespeare falling in love with the Earl of Southampton. They did not need to, in any case, since the Fiennes-Paltrow relationship itself provides enough cross-dressing (Paltrow as Thomas Kent) and switching of sexual roles in the dialogue that the film is able to play with gender ambiguity without turning to the more disarming relationship portrayed in the Sonnets.

At any rate, it is not an outrageous guess that Shakespeare had love relationships in London that amounted to a betrayal of his marriage vows. There is even a contemporary story about this--a story that has no evidence to back it up and is inherently suspicious because it is a tale applicable to lots of situations, but nonetheless interesting to anyone curious to speculate if Shakespeare's wonderful writings about falling in love had any basis in personal experience other than his presumed courtship of Anne Hathaway many years back in time. According to an anecdote related by one Edward Curle, a student at the Middle Temple, to his roommate Sir John Manningham, who jotted the item down in his Diary of 1602, Shakespeare happened one day to overhear Richard Burbage making an assignation with a young lady in the theatre audience. Shakespeare took note of the time and place and, proceeding there in advance of the appointment, "was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came." When a message was sent up to their room that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused a message to be returned that William the Conqueror preceded Richard the Third (Schoenbaum 152), Shakespeare in Love alludes to this incident, in reverse, as it were, when Shakespeare finds Burbage in bed with Rosaline.

The film's most playful and outrageous suggestion connecting autobiography with Shakespeare's literary output has to do with the creation of Romeo and Juliet. Here the film imagines, in wonderful detail, that the story of two star-crossed lovers comes to the writer's-block-suffering Shakespeare in vivid installments in the form of a series of actual experiences. He crashes a party at the elegant home of Viola's parents, thinking that he is looking for "Thomas Kent," and there beholds the lovely Viola in a dance; they touch hands; her kinsmen and the rival wooer are offended. Shakespeare climbs a trellis in an attempt to reach her from the garden in back of her house. Filled with the rapture of this dangerous and exciting evening, he scurries back to his digs and writes it all down. One of the great jokes in the film, indeed, is that this Shakespeare gets all his ideas and his memorable phrases from his friends and from Viola. "That's a good title," he'll say, when Edward Alleyn suggests "Romeo and Juliet" instead of "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." Viola gives him lines verbatim as they make love. …

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