Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?
Anyone setting out to write a biography of Shakespeare has to weigh two considerations against each other. On the one hand, we do not know all that much about him. On the other hand, we know a great deal. There are no diaries, letters, memoirs, or interviews; most of the surviving documentation is dry and impersonal; major aspects of his life remain a blank. But we do have the plays and the poems—how can they fail to bring us close to the man who wrote them?—and we can build on the knowledge, bequeathed by generations of scholars, of the society in which he lived and moved.
Given the available evidence, or lack of it, any attempt at a full-length portrait of Shakespeare is bound to involve an exceptional amount of speculation. Even the most cautious biography, once it starts exploring his personality, can hardly help taking on some of the characteristics of a novel. The only alternative—sticking to the established facts and gaps—is, however, arguably more useful. No one did more for the study of Shakespeare’s life in the 20th century than E.K. Chambers in Britain and Samuel Schoenbaum in America. But neither of them wrote a biography (although Schoenbaum had hoped to). Chambers confined himself to William Shakespeare: A Study in Facts and Problems (1930). Schoenbaum distilled his learning into William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975) and various associated volumes.
About the Author
John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.