Nine Lives of William Shakespeare
Biographies of Shakespeare have always been problematic: so much to explain, so little information. Introducing his new book, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare, Graham Holderness, author of some 20 books on the Bard and an English professor at the University of Hertfordshire, in Hatfield, about 20 miles north of London, acknowledges the preferred solution. Every biography of Shakespeare, he writes, “embroiders fact and tradition into a speculative composition that is, at least partly, fictional.”
Naming seven authors of Shakespeare biographies published in recent years (Peter Ackroyd, Jonathan Bate, Bill Bryson, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Stephen Greenblatt, Stanley Wells, and Michael Wood), Holderness says, “The very fact that they seek to construct a holistic and integrated totality out of essentially heterogeneous material renders them vulnerable to question.”
In his new book, Holderness eschews homogeneity and occupies Shakespeare with nine disparate lives, each on a different aspect of the biography as scholars have told it. Nine Lives, he says, is the “first biographical study to proceed on the assumption that Shakespeare’s various lives are multiple and discontinuous.” In other words, he has ditched the hopeless Humpty Dumpty project, and instead examines the pieces.
Nine Lives of William Shakespeare has nothing to do with the old saying about cats. In fact, by avoiding the initial limiting article “the,” the title implies that there are potentially more lives. The book’s nine chapters (Life One through Life Nine) include subsections recounting “facts,” “tradition,” and “speculation” peculiar to each of the lives—a triple dose of data.
For these parts alone, the book is a useful reference. Though always displaying allegiance to the traditional Shakespeare story, Holderness critiques the biographies in useful ways and shows just how weak and tenuous many of their assertions are.
Not to be outdone on the fictional part of Shakespeare biography, however, Holderness, a novelist and poet, concludes each Life with a purely fictional story that takes off from it. Here, Holderness says he has “taken considerable encouragement” from his old ally in the culture wars, Stephen Greenblatt.
In his Shakespeare biography, Will in the World, “Greenblatt’s challenge to orthodoxy was to be much more overtly fictional,” Holderness writes. When Greenblatt discusses the relationship of the Hamlets, father and son, Holderness says, “this is clearly not just about Shakespeare: it is also about Greenblatt himself.” But while Greenblatt mingles fact and fiction indiscriminately and produces mystification, Holderness clearly separates the two and avoids it.
In Life One, “Shakespeare the Writer,” the story is “The Shakespeare Code.” In a brief introduction, Holderness cites The Da Vinci Code and says that here he is drawing on an “incident in the life of Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who buried a manuscript volume of poems together with the corpse of his wife Lizzie, ‘between her cheek and hair,’ and later consented to have the poems exhumed from her grave in Highgate cemetery.”
An academic obsessed with the hope of finding a Shakespeare manuscript breaks into an underground burial chamber in Stratford and extracts a sheaf of papers from the coffin of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna. He is ultimately disappointed to learn that it is not a manuscript but a copy of the 1608 quarto of King Lear. It’s nothing to him, and of course, nothing comes of nothing. That seems shortsighted. Such a revelation, if actual, would rock the Shakespeare world because Shakespeare has never been shown to have possessed any books at all, much less one in the canon.
For Life Two, “Shakespeare the Player,” Holderness utilizes Hamlet’s speech to the players as a real lesson Shakespeare gives his fellow actor Richard Burbage, but it runs out of steam. In introducing the story, Holderness even admits that “this Shakespeare is obviously rather too knowledgeable about Stanislavski and Artaud and Brecht.” By the time Shakespeare delivers his acting lecture, it’s old news.
Three stories are devoted to “Shakespeare in Love,” all involving the same fetish object: a gold ring, which actually exists, engraved with the initials “W. S.” It “was acquired in 1810 by Stratford solicitor and antiquarian Robert Bell Wheler” and “can still be seen today in the Visitor’s Centre at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford.”
Never mind that the ring was “found” in the age of forgery; the three stories Holderness forges from it are what matter. The first embellishes Wheler’s own ring narration to tell of the true love of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway.
The second, recounting the homosexuality of the sonnets and projecting W. S. as William and Southampton, has Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery of the ring’s theft, which involves Oscar Wilde, for whom the initials mean either Wilde and Shakespeare or Wilde and Salome.
The third story goes off on an unfortunate tangent as it explores the “dark lady” of the sonnets by turning Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms into a sexually explicit account of an affair with a black nurse whose initials are W.S. The precedent of Nothing Like the Sun, the Shakespeare novel by Anthony Burgess, whose dark lady is a black prostitute, is no excuse for flaunting racial attitudes that are severely compromised. Professors who introduce this preposterous fantasy in teaching the sonnets are, at best, clueless.
It is truly not until Life Nine that Holderness’s fiction fulfills expectations, but then it does so brilliantly. The subject is “Shakespeare’s Face,” and the discussion of facts, tradition, and speculation ranges from conjectural portraits of Shakespeare to the images of Shakespeare that permeate popular culture.
Describing the “best-known sculpted representation of Shakespeare,” the marble statue “executed by Peter Scheemakers and erected in Westminster Abbey as a memorial to the national poet in 1741,” Holderness notes its “similarity to the icon of Christ,” and cites a Victorian “Bible-Shakespeare Calendar” in the Folger Shakespeare Library with a cover that “features a Shakespearean visage assimilated to the traditional iconographic conventions used for representing Christ.”
The Westminster statue was appropriated by David Garrick, Holderness continues, as a “miniature souvenir” cast in lead for his Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769, when Shakespeare “became a god,” according to Christian Deelman’s book on the event.
The same statue’s image on Britain’s £20 banknote, from 1970 to 1993, was a “god with a countenance of marble, with feet of lead,” which then was superseded by another image of Shakespeare that “was depicted in the form of a high-technology visual hologram, designed to inhibit fraudulent use and reproduction” on a popular credit card known as the Bardcard.
“Where the £20 note pointed to the legitimate state ownership and control of both economic and cultural power,” Holderness writes, “the Bardcard proved its holder’s title to credit by displaying the image of the one major author whose responsibility for the cultural productions attributed to him has been consistently and systematically questioned.”
Here Holderness is reprising some of the admirable work in his book Cultural Shakespeare, published in 2001 by the University of Hertfordshire Press, where he brought to bear with lucid clarity some excellent left-wing political and philosophical thinking upon the Shakespeare apparatus.
“An Account of a Voyage to Bardolo,” the short story included in Life Nine, is the pièce de résistance. Inspired by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as well as H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and James Hawes’s Speak for England, it is about the “mysterious disappearance” of a cargo of orphan children, six boys and six girls, trained as actors and singers, who were being brought to Japan in 1710 to perform for the imperial court. A storm came up and they were put off the ship in a lifeboat, never to be seen or heard from again.
Centuries later, by similarly weird circumstances, the story’s narrator, Edward, a man with a “sound education,” who was once an actor in London and for a time an officer in the Royal Navy, comes alone in a lifeboat to “an island I could not recall seeing on the charts.” Soon he encounters “two young men of European appearance,” each wearing “a crudely tailored doublet” and sporting long hair “partly shaved above the forehead” so that they bear a “remarkable resemblance to William Shakespeare.” Their names are Orsino and Marcellus. They call both their island and their city Bardolo, and their king “is always called William. After the Bard.”
With only a copy of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare to provide for their culture, after 13 generations, a community of descendants worships the Bard and lives “by the Book.” Edward goes along with the program and becomes a friend of the director of the Academy of Bardolo, Dr. Pericles, who shows him a “great chamber inside the rock” with three iconic images, Bard the Father, a depiction of Shakespeare’s funeral effigy in Stratford, “who holds the Woolsack of Abundance”; Bard the Lover, based on the Chandos portrait, “who brings us Passion and Fertility”; and Bard the Wise, the Droeshout portrait, “who opens to us the Book of Knowledge,” the Rowe edition.
All is sweetness and light in Bardolo, but as a year progresses, “I suffered under the constant disquiet of concealment, growing more and more restless in the poisonous, gnawing knowledge that it was all based upon a misunderstanding,” Edward says. “Gradually I became more and more determined to expose the absurdity of their beliefs, and to bring these idolatrous people to their senses.”
Finally, turning to Dr. Pericles (“where most of the Bardolians were like devotees of some fundamentalist religion, he seemed to me to have a kind of sly comic wit and a knowing scepticism that would surely make him a willing auditor to what I had to say”), he lets the cat out of the bag in a daylong discourse, concluding, “And I explained that some people had even ventured to doubt whether Shakespeare himself was the author of the plays, and to propose that they may have been written by someone else.”
With a smile, Dr. Pericles dismisses him, saying he’ll have to think about it. But at night, back at his hut, Edward wakes up and sees a “small group of young men” gathering round. “I knew instantly that I was to be seized and arrested as a heretic and blasphemer.”
There are many more delightful details in this dazzling satire, and I won’t spoil the ending, but indeed, this development is on a par with what any professorial initiate in the cult of Shakespeare might fear were he to consider raising a doubtful suspicion about the Bard. This is clearly not just about Shakespeare: it is also about Holderness himself.
ContributorWilliam S. Niederkorn