February 10, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     A new, annotated edition of the complete Sherlock 
Holmes stories has just appeared in two volumes; ditto a 
new best-selling "biography" of Shakespeare, Stephen 
Greenblatt's WILL IN THE WORLD.

     Neither one is urgently needed. Two scholarly 
editions of the Holmes stories already exist. As for 
Shakespeare bios, there's at least one new one every 
year, though no new facts about the Stratford man have 
been found in the last ninety years.

     But so what? We can't get enough of these two great 
fictional characters, Holmes of Baker Street and 
Shakespeare of Stratford. It was nearly seventy years ago 
that Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street 
Irregulars, a group dedicated to applying Holmes's 
methods to the Holmes stories and, pretending to take 
them as fact, playfully "deducing" solutions to the 
problems they pose.

     The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a somewhat 
careless writer who left a lot of loose ends and even 
contradictions in his yarns as narrated by Dr. Watson. 
The Baker Street Irregulars treated Dr. Watson as the 
real author and, with mock solemnity, tried to figure out 
how many times he was married, why his wife (or one of 
them) calls him "James" when his name is John, and why 
his old war wound is recalled as first in his leg and 
then, in a later story, in his shoulder.

     The real solution to all these mysteries -- that 
Conan Doyle wrote in haste and never looked back -- is 
excluded by the rules of the game. Some people derive an 
enormous amount of fun from all this, and it's easy to 
see why. I started reading Holmes when I was eleven, and 
I still reread all the stories every few years. The 
temptation to regard them as history is almost 
irresistible. Holmes is still one of the most magnetic 
characters ever imagined -- so magnetic you almost forget 
he's imaginary.

     Conan Doyle had the gift of the born writer: the 
ability to put an unforgettable voice on a page. You 
can't get enough of Holmes; you want to know everything 
about him, though all there is to "know" is what Dr. 
Watson tells you. We "know" that Holmes went to a 
university, for instance, but we aren't told where. Such 
biographical data are frustratingly meager.

     The Baker Street Irregulars have an odd counterpart 
in Shakespeare scholarship. Again, the biographical 
record is inadequate, and huge gaps must be filled in by 
deduction or guesswork. The only rule of the game -- and 
a rigid rule it is -- is that you must posit that the 
Stratford man is the real author. Then you build an 
edifice of speculation around the dates of his birth, 
marriage, death, and a few odds and ends.

     As with Holmes, we hunger to know more about 
Shakespeare. I read dozens of "biographies," vainly 
hoping to get closer to him, before I realized that they 
were all written about the wrong man. Their "Shakespeare" 
was, like Holmes, a beloved but imaginary character.

     Professor Greenblatt's new biography is charmingly 
written and worthy of the Baker Street Irregulars in its 
ingenious deductions. He supposes, for example, that 
Shakespeare witnessed the grisly execution of a Jew and 
was thereby inspired to write THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. He 
further surmises that HAMLET somehow issued from the 
death in 1596 of Shakespeare's little son Hamnet. These 
are stretches, but Professor Greenblatt is carried away 
by the sheer creative pleasure of rounding out the 
character he has imagined.

     "It is a capital mistake to form a deduction before 
you have all the facts," as Holmes says. But this maxim, 
applied consistently, would put Shakespeare scholarship 
out of business. The first fact you have to get right, if 
you want to write a biography of the author, is who the 
author was.

     The real author, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, 
created an imaginary character when he put the name 
"William Shakespeare" on a published poem in 1593. This 
was "certified" when his collected plays were published 
under that name, with a portrait of the nominal author, 
in 1623. Nearly two centuries later scholars started 
digging in Stratford for hard information about the man 
they'd mistaken (through no fault of their own) for the 
author, and the game of "discovering" Shakespeare 
continues to this day.

     What the heck. It's innocent fun, and nobody really 
gets hurt.


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