A Strikingly Mundane Life
A difficult dilemma confronts biographers who tell the story of the glove maker's son from Stratford-on-Avon who is supposed to have become the world's greatest poet and dramatist. 1 On the one hand, scholars over the centuries have turned up a fair amount of historical information about his life in business and real estate and, to a much lesser extent, as an actor or theater personage. On the other hand, none of the information from his lifetime has anything to do with the writing of plays and poems. Only years after his death was there any testimony that he was the author of the plays of Shakespeare. But the testimony was not only posthumous, it was ambiguous.
His biographers, obliged to construct some sort of meaningful account of his life for their books and introductions to the plays, display a wide range of views about the available evidence. Some find it utterly useless; others find it perfectly adequate. Some find a mystery; some no mystery at all. A few of them struggle with the biographical tradition they have inherited. Their biographies, however, end up leaving the reader puzzled about how much is known and what to make of it. A survey of their views is illuminating. 2
The opening sentence of A Companion to Shakespeare Studies reads: "Of the life of Shakespeare little is known."