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Making Sense of Shakespeare

July 27, 2000

William Shakespeare: The Man behind the Genius by Anthony Holden (Little, Brown) is the latest attempt to reconstruct the life of the greatest English poet from a handful of meager recorded details. One problem for the biographer is that Stratford’s most famous son lived a dull existence. Another is that he didn’t write the works bearing his name.

When writing a literary biography, it’s always a good idea to start by making sure you have the right fellow. Holden is sure. Attempts to assign the works to someone else, he assures us, are “usually snobbish,” and besides, he asks, would Honest Ben Jonson lie to us? So much for the authorship question.

The result is the usual rehash of the bare data, rounded out with the usual padding of speculation. Holden writes with a light touch, but it’s still a rehash that never gets us near the author, despite the promise of the introduction and the dust-jacket blurbs. Holden makes the common mistake of assuming that the famous 1592 attack on the “upstart crow,” generally (but probably wrongly) assigned to the dying Robert Greene, refers to the Stratford man, adding the further mistake of assuming that Henry Chettle’s famous apology refers to William too.

Holden’s attempts to penetrate the poet’s inner life are skewed by his laborious effort to integrate the records of William with the works of the Bard, on the presumption that they must somehow form a whole. This is where all the Shakespeare biographies fall. If William wasn’t the Bard, there is no way to fit his life to his supposed works.

[Breaker quote: Another 
'biography' of the wrong Bard]This becomes clearest when Holden deals with the Sonnets. He recognizes that most of these poems are addressed to the Earl of Southampton, also the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis (the first work published under the name “William Shakespeare,” in 1593), and he recognizes that the first 17 Sonnets are an attempt to persuade Southampton to marry Elizabeth de Vere; but then he quickly loses touch with the texts. He won’t allow that the subsequent love poems to the young earl are homosexual, though he doesn’t explain why the poet keeps speaking of his “desire” and “appetite” for the lad.

This is important, because only in the Sonnets does the Bard seem to speak candidly about his own life and intimate feelings. Holden has enough common sense to reject the canard that the Sonnets are “fictions.” The trouble is that his initial assumption — of William’s authorship — prevents him from seeing how the Sonnets record significant episodes in the Bard’s life.

He pays no attention, for example, to the poet’s obsession with his “disgrace,” the subject of “vulgar scandal,” which the Sonnets never define. William was never a very public figure, and there is no evidence that he was ever in disgrace. So why does the poet harp on this theme?

Because he was not William at all, but Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Oxford was the subject of several scandals, which nearly wrecked his life; an enemy sneered at his “decayed reputation.” That explains why the poet worries about his “name,” which he hopes will be “buried” and “forgotten.” Late in life Oxford was also, in his own words, “a lame man”; the poet of the Sonnets laments that he is “lame” (twice). The Sonnets use 50 of the same legal terms Oxford, a trained lawyer, used in his own letters; one of those letters, written in 1573, foreshadows the Sonnets in remarkable detail.

Edward de Vere was also the father of Elizabeth de Vere — the same girl Southampton had been, in effect, ordered (by Lord Burghley) to marry, though he refused to. So the first 17 Sonnets are Oxford’s attempt to coax Southampton to become his son-in-law; hence he urges him to marry the girl “for love of me.” Such details are lost on Holden because he insists on seeing William as the Bard.

But once we recognize Oxford as the Bard, we can begin to construct a biography that really does integrate the poet’s life with his works. Bogus mysteries are eliminated, and we can finally gain real access to the poet’s heart.

Joseph Sobran

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