The Fictional Lives of Shakespeare

By Kevin Gilvary
245 pp. Routledge

Reviewed by Luke Prodromou*

Shakespearean biography, as a sub-genre of biographical writing, is unique and idiosyncratic: at the heart of the enterprise of writing the life of England’s greatest writer is a paradox; while more biographies of Shakespeare have been written than of any other English writer (and probably any other person on the planet), yet less is known about Shakespeare than of any other writer, or indeed any other subject of biography. Shakespeare is the most written about but the least known or knowable of all subjects of the art of biography.

The more we write about him, in fact, the more elusive he becomes. He splinters and fragments, he goes forth and multiplies into a myriad identities: Protestant and Catholic, radical and conservative, family-man and philanderer, heterosexual and gay, unique genius and literary collaborator,  artist and hack, a man with connections in high places and a discreet labourer behind the scenes; a gentle companion and upright citizen but also street-brawler and pimp; a man of the Renaissance but also a poor classical scholar,  snob, tax-dodger and mone-lender, and so it goes on, ad infinitum: a life without limits of a man who generates mystery the more you gaze upon him.

While the more is written about other writers, such as Byron or Lawrence, the better we seem to know them (Ellis vii) the converse is true of Shakespeare. Why should this be so?

Kevin Gilvary’s book—not a biography but a book about biography—brilliantly explains the mystery: we simply lack data about William Shakespeare the writer. That is, nearly everything which has been written about the personality of the actual writer (as opposed to what has been written about the actor-manager-businessman) is fiction or, at best, unverifiable: in the absence of hard facts about their subject, his biographers simply make it up.

Indeed, the documentary information we have about the Bard refers almost exclusively to the man from Stratford in his non-literary capacity: birth, marriage, children, dealings in property, financial matters, court cases, and so on. Any literary or personal references we have of him are ambiguous, vague or incomplete. Yet, the almost total absence of any factual data about either the man or the writer does not seem to deter new biographies, both scholarly and popular, from appearing—not singly but in battalions!

Thankfully, Dr. Gilvary, a UK-based specialist in this area, hasn’t added yet another biography to the never-ending list. His recent book is actually the latest in the relatively new genre of books about biographies of Shakespeare (Schoenbaum 1991; Bevington 2010; Ellis 2012). Gilvary’s title, The Fictional Lives of Shakespeare, echoes that of an earlier monograph on a similar theme: David Ellis’s The Truth about William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies. “Fiction” is the key word here, and it co-occurs frequently with loaded words such as “speculation,” “conjecture,” “myth,” “legend,” “tale,” “gossip”—all lexical items signaling the non-factual basis of every single biography written about this beloved author. Why non-factual? Because the facts do not exist.

The aim of Gilvary’s book, like that of Ellis before him, is to demonstrate the impossibility of writing a fact-based biography of Shakespeare. The founder of this kind of book is probably Samuel Schoenbaum, whose reputation rests on his making use of all available factual documents in constructing his own biography of Shakespeare (A Documentary Life, 1975). Schoenbaum also surveyed the attempts of others to write Shakespearean biography (Shakespeare’s Lives, 1991), and in doing so ridiculed the so-called anti-Stratfordians, many scholars and theatre people among them, who doubt the official narrative.

Bevington (2010), another analyst of this field of Shakespeare biographies, is clearly aware of all the gaps in the documentary record but he—unlike Gilvary—does not question the legitimacy of attempting to write Shakespearean biography, using the scraps available. He instead describes the variety of points of view we encounter in Shakespearean biography and sums up, uncritically I would say, what traditional Stratfordian-focused biographers have said about a range of topics central to the  plays (sex, politics, religion, etc.). Bevington, again like the conventional biographers, suggests (highly implausible) links of these textual elements to the life of the man from Stratford, while Gilvary and Ellis are more critical of the speculative nature of the enterprise itself. It is interesting, in this respect, to compare Bevington’s respectful reference to Nicholas Rowe’s early attempt at biography as “comprehensive” to Ellis’s dismissal of Rowe’s work as “gossip” and Gilvary’s even more scathing rejection of Rowe’s data as “unverifiable or simply wrong.”

Gilvary’s book is unique in that he bases his opinions and judgments on his own original research. On Rowe, for instance, Gilvary demonstrates, with detailed empirical data, what Edmund Malone, writing in the eighteenth century,  had said about Rowe’s work: that it contained “eleven facts: eight of which were wrong and one of which was doubtful.” Gilvary takes the same forensic approach to all the major subsequent biographers and, with a focus on verifiable evidence—or its absence—deconstructs the claims made by these supposedly eminent scholars and professional biographers, showing them, time and again, to be “unverifiable”—or pure fiction.

The book’s ten chapters begin with Gilvary’s own outline of the many theories of biography which explain the linear, hero-driven narrative adopted by most lives of Shakespeare: Shakespeare biographers, with few exceptions (see, for example,  Holderness 2013), begin their story by tracing the steps of the “hero” of the narrative from childhood to maturity and, finally, death. Gilvary’s theoretical framework throws clear light on the problems created by attempts to squeeze the handful of facts available on the life of Shakespeare into a coherent linear narrative; problems generated by (a) the simple paucity of material for such a narrative and (b) the need to publish profitable material for a reading public insatiable for biographies of famous people.

Chapters Two and Three focus on the general absence of source material and the biographer’s recourse to the plays and poems themselves to infer “facts” about the author’s life—or simply to make facts up in order to flesh out a credible story according to the biographer’s personal beliefs, whims or ideology.

Chapter Four shows how Malone, in the eighteenth century, challenged the myths about Shakespeare, but in vain. Chapter Five focuses on the flood of speculative biographies which began to appear in the wake of the new status of Shakespeare as national bard, despite the fact that research during the period produced very little new data. In this chapter, Gilvary provides a thorough analysis of Romantic and Victorian biographies and brings the story well into the twentieth century, where Bardolatry continues to reign supreme.

Chapters Six and Seven provide a thorough critical analysis of the work of Samuel Schoenbaum, current doyen of Shakespeare biographers, and his impact on other biographers right up to the present time. Let us simply say that Gilvary goes much further than Ellis in questioning the authority of Schoenbaum and the significance of the documents on which his approach is based.

Under the influence of post-modern theories, recent biographers have felt quite free to multiply the speculative narratives. Given the fluid nature of historical truth, it has become common practice to legitimize even gossip about Shakespeare, working on the assumption that gossip must contain a kernel of truth. In the absence of substantial data for a life-story and, indeed, skepticism towards the very idea of objective historical facts, these post-modern biographers feel free to concoct the biographical story from their own imaginations; the resulting narratives use what little documentary evidence exists in a “creative” rather than a scholarly way to produce biographies which may not be historically accurate but, it is claimed, capture a deeper imaginative truth about their subject. In other words, biographical writings in this field have become more “novelistic,” whether written by actual professional novelists, such as Ackroyd or Holderness, or by university academics, such as Bate and Greenblatt: the point is that, by definition, every Shakespeare biography has become an instance, to a lesser or greater degree, of an imagined, “fictionalized” biography, where the protagonists are really the biographers themselves and not Shakespeare, the man and writer.

Chapters Eight and Nine look specifically at the roles of Southampton and Ben Jonson in the Shakespeare story, including the assumptions made—and endlessly repeated—about their particular roles in the Shakespeare myths. But, for the first time (in my experience), real attention is paid to documentary detail and the socio-historical context. As with all of the issues Gilvary takes up, his conclusion is that what has passed into the official narratives as more or less true is also little more than fiction, originating in unreliable gossip.

Gilvary’s careful scholarship leads him to a position of utmost skepticism towards the very possibility of real Shakespeare biography. We can predict that those like Gilvary, who doubt the official Stratford-based narrative, will no doubt be confronted with a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders, as if to say: what does it matter what this man from the provinces was actually like; after all, we have the works and that’s all that matters.

But are the works really all that matters?

Let me end this review of Gilvary’s excellent and well-argued study by attempting to answer this question using another paradox of Shakespeare studies; the way the “problem” of lack of data about the Stratford man is converted into a virtue. That is, that “not knowing” who he was allows each reader or theatre-goer—to invent their own Shakespeare.

New Historicism, for its part in the myth, made several fascinating attempts to embed Shakespeare in the culture and conflicts of his time, while most of the traditional approaches simply thrive on the idea of “country boy makes good” or the more romantic idea of the “universal genius,” someone not for an age but for all time, the supreme artist detached from and rising above the messy context of his own times, to speak, unhampered, to all ages.

Reading Gilvary certainly leads one to conclude that whatever version of the Bard’s life we personally adhere to clearly shapes the way we choose to interpret the plays and poems. Gilvary’s major contribution in this book is really the uncovering of the inaccuracies of the many assumptions that we and his so-called biographers make about the life and—by implication—how these inaccuracies distort the way we see the texts themselves.

“The works of Shakespeare,” says Gilvary, “are an essential element of our culture and the implications of my findings are important for almost the full range of Shakespearean criticism” (204). Editors and directors, for example, date the works in ways which Gilvary demonstrates are often arbitrary. Interpretations are then constructed based on these erroneous assumptions about events of the time or occurrences in the life of the author, which, in turn, are considered to have shaped the text in question.

Thus, for example, the narrative of an upwardly mobile petit-bourgeois young man on the make, who leaves the provinces for London in order to pursue the status of gentleman, will surely shape the way readers or spectators interpret a whole host of Shakespearean themes, including the ever-present one of court-life versus country-life and the value of power, prestige and wealth over issues of feeling or common humanity. Indeed, a belief in this standard narrative has shaped the way we assume, as a matter of routine, that Shakespeare felt contempt towards ordinary folk in plays as varied as Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Given that so much is at stake when biographers simply “imagine” and “make up” the life and thus the filter through which we see Shakespeare, Gilvary sensibly recommends that any future lives of Shakespeare be based strictly on the limited documentary data available or, if a full life is the aim, then it should be published as historical fiction. In all cases, when we engage in speculation on the life of the man from Stratford as Shakespeare, we must acknowledge that we know only one thing: that we know virtually nothing.

Works Cited

Bevington, David. Shakespeare and Biography. Oxford UP, 2010.

Ellis, David. The Truth about William Shakespeare. Edinburgh UP, 2012.

Holderness, Graham. Nine Lives of William Shakespeare. Arden, 2013.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. A Documentary Life. Clarendon, 1975.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. Shakespeare’s Lives. Clarendon, 1991. 


*Luke Prodromou graduated from Bristol University in English and has an M.A. in Shakespeare Studies from Birmingham University, a Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language (Leeds University) and a Ph.D. (Nottingham University). His Ph.D. thesis was published as English as a Lingua Franca: a Corpus-based Analysis (Continuum, 2010). He is the author—with Lindsay Clandfield—of the award-winning Dealing with Difficulties and numerous textbooks for students. He was for many years a teacher and teacher-trainer with the British Council. He has also run courses on Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen, the Modern English novel and Romanticism.  He teaches TESOL methodology at Sheffield University/City College, Thessaloniki, Greece.

Copyright © 2019 Luke Prodromou
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