Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Letters, Lawrence, Shakespeare and Biography *

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Letters, Lawrence, Shakespeare and Biography *

Article excerpt

Some time ago the Royal Mail ran a series of television advertisements urging viewers to make more use of its services. In these days of creeping privatization I have no idea how much public money now goes into the Royal Mail but, if the sums are still considerable, then I think that taxpayers might well resent them being spent in this way. It is as if the Ministry of Transport, in its efforts to 'get people out of their cars', were to run a comparable series on the benefits of the horse-drawn carriage. Letter-writing is surely doomed and will die out with the rapidly decreasing number of its current practitioners. If already it can hardly compete with increasingly fast and cheap methods of transportation, the telephone, the e-mail or the text message, what hope will it have in the coming era of the video link?

It is always assumed that the disappearance of letters will' seriously affect biography as we currently know it, and there are some who have even suggested it will prove a mortal blow. Certainly most biographies are heavily reliant on what might be called 'first person utterance'. That is a category which includes diaries, confessions, memoirs and autobiographies (if the biographer is lucky enough to have them), but also of course, and more usually, letters. There are not many literary biographies of figures born within the last two or three hundred years for which letters are not the primary and indispensable source. This is so much the case that one has to wonder how biographies on traditional lines can ever be written if letters and other kinds of first-person utterance are lacking. 'What would we not give', writes Schoenbaum, in his admirable Shakespeare's Lives, 'for a single personal letter, one page of diary!' (1) I have argued recently that because, in Shakespeare's case, there is no surviving materia l of this kind, a traditional biography of him is impossible; and that (in the common phrase) we can never know what he was like. (2) The effect of my cogent reasoning can be seen every day on the bookstands. Apart from a will and a signed deposition in a court case, no personal documents of Shakespeare exist, yet a steady stream of biographies of him continues to appear. How do their authors manage?

One answer is that they speculate wildly. Anyone who has ever read a scolarly introduction to a Shakespeare play will be able to infer how arduous and unrewarding Shakespeare scholarship can frequently be. Since the effect of reading these introductions is so often like chewing sawdust, it is not difficult to imagine how much work went on at the mill. In order to prove what can, in fact, never be proved definitively, so much hard work is required on the habits of particular compositors, the provenance of certain quartos, the possible allusions in the plays to contemporary events, that it is no surprise if, when the opportunity for biographical speculation comes along, there should be a sudden release of libido and sober scholars should forget their inhibitions. No one speculates more irresponsibly than a Shakespeare scholar temporarily on the loose. For those of them who resist the impulse, however, another solution to the lack of appropriate information is the substitution of background for foreground: compe nsating for our ignorance of the particularities of Shakespeare's life with lots -- and lots -- of historical context. Yet context can suggest only how a representative male of Shakespeare's background would probably have thought, felt or acted in a certain situation, not whether his feelings, thinking and behaviour were representative in this or that particular case.

The third solution, of course, is to discover Shakespeare through his works. Biographers are unfortunate here in that drama is an especially awkward genre with which to play 'hunt the author'. To take the most familiar move in that game, how do you identify the authorial voice among so many? …

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