To mark the 2012 anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, I have written a post exploring my interest in Shakespeare and trying to define what I am looking for when writing about him. It is necessarily more personal, in parts, than my other posts; forgive me if it seems indulgently so.
One of the great 20th Shakespearean scholars, Samuel Schoenbaum, relates an observation of Desmond McCarthy’s about Shakespearean biography. Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realise that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.
McCarthy’s insight is one that frequently comes to mind when thinking – or reading – about Shakespeare. What, if anything, are we looking for besides a reflection of our own concerns or preoccupations? With Shakespeare, in particular, it is a problem made more pressing by the reticence of the biographical record – there are more blank spaces on the canvas for portraitists to fill with conjectures or inventions of their own – as much as by the impossibility of finding a definitive Shakesperean identity in the work as it survives. Shakespeare is too busy being everyone to project a sense of self. As the 20th-century American poet John Berryman wrote, while in the midst of researching a critical biography of Shakespeare that he would never complete: ‘Oh my God! Shakespeare. That multiform & encyclopedic bastard.’
Shakespeare haunts our culture. But I find myself increasingly drawn to exploring those things that haunted him: the ghosts of the cultural and ritual worlds that were already dying when he was young, and that he would help kill; the ghosts of English history, of old ballads and tales, of folk memory and folk lore, as he might himself have found them, haunting the English landscape.
We have long known about his readings in and borrowings from the chronicles of Holinshed and Hall, among much else; but increasingly I want to push further than that, to go beyond what Philip Sidney called the ‘bare Was’ of history towards a greater sense of how his reading and accumulation of story might have been informed by personal experience. That is, what images and associations might have been conjured up by, say, his reading about the siege of Rochester in Holinshed’s Chronicles when researching King John; or the Cotswolds when he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor; or Bury St Edmonds when he wrote Henry VI, part 2; and so on.