Intimacies with Southampton and Marlowe, entanglements in London with the elusive dark lady, the probable fathering of an illegitimate sonthese are among the mysteries of Shakespeare's rich and turbulent life that have proven tantalizingly obscure.
Despite an avalanche of recent scholarship, René Weis, an acknowledged authority on the Elizabethan period, believes the links between the bard's life and the poems and plays have been largely ignored. Armed with a wealth of new archival research and his own highly regarded interpretations of the literature, the author finds provocative parallels between Shakespeare's early experiences in the bustling market town of Stratfordincluding a dangerous poaching incident and contacts with underground Catholicsand the plays.
Breaking with tradition, Weis reveals that it is the plays and poems themselves that contain the richest seam of clues about the details of Shakespeare's personal life, at home in Stratford and in the shadowy precincts of theatrical Londondetails of a code unbroken for four hundred years.
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If there is one character in the later plays with whom Shakespeare is commonly identified, it is Prospero in The Tempest, his last solo play. Prospero sees himself as a magician whose art allows him to conjure up entire worlds of men and women, lord it over their lives, even resurrect them from death. Whatever else he may or may not have thought, Shakespeare did not take a modest view of his gifts and achievements, though Prospero is not Shakespeare and the Milan to which Prospero wishes to retire is not Stratford-upon-Avon.
The links between Shakespeare’s life and his work are closer than is generally assumed. This book aims to show how deep these connections are. The plays and poems contain important clues to Shakespeare’s inner life and to real, tangible, external events he experienced four hundred years ago.
There is a cumulative amount of circumstantial evidence that demonstrates beyond doubt that Shakespeare responded in his work to key events of his life. King Lear’s rage reflects the bard’s anger and frustrations and his need to vent them against the world at large. That does not mean that he tore off his clothes on a heath in Warwickshire, or that he had two daughters who were conspiring against him while a third, his youngest, was trying to save his life and sanity. Of course Shakespeare was neither king of England nor Prince of Denmark, not a middle-aged black man consumed by love and jealousy and rendered vulnerable to treachery because of his race, nor a Jewish financier seeking revenge on Christians for putting him out of business or spitting on him. The resonances in the work are much subtler, but the echoes across the boundary of life and art can clearly be heard if we only wish to listen for them. Shakespeare did not have three daughters, but we know he had two. If we were to discover that at the time of King Lear there were major tensions in the Shakespeare household and in his sexual life that might have helped influence the play’s plot, why would we ignore them?
The most thought-provoking remark on the convergence of Shakespeare’s life and works belongs to the English poet John Keats, one of Shakespeare’s most assiduous and intelligent readers. In an 1819 letter, Keats wrote that “A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the mystery . . . Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it.” For Keats Shakespeare’s life and his plays and poems are inextricably linked in ways that are mutually reflective and illuminating. They merge to form a secret history, which this book sets out to decode. Keats’s near contemporary William Wordsworth, the author of an important epic autobiographical poem, suggested that the Sonnets were the key with which Shakespeare had unlocked his heart. Far from distilling the essence of impersonality, Shakespeare’s works tackle the human condition straight out of his own experiences. He poured his soul into his works, hence their intensity and imaginative power. He lived and breathed theater, composing countless iambic pentameters, memorizing lines, acting in his own plays and in those written by fellow dramatists, while at the same time reading widely in the classics and in English and Roman history. He wrote as the mood took him. The energy and intensity of his plays derive from Shakespeare’s struggle to come to terms with the eternal issues of love, life, and death. Shakespeare went so far as to call one of his greatest works, perhaps the most famous tragedy in the world, Hamlet after his own dead son. To try to disembody the plays and poems from the life of their author is as counterintuitive as seeking to separate him from the national history of his era.
He lived emphatically in history, and few critics have doubted that this fascination left a deep imprint on his work. When he was born, the Protestant revolution had recently put the new English Bible at the core of the national culture. If it had not been for the Reformation Shakespeare would not have read the scriptures, probably not have gone to school. He might never have lived beyond the limits of a glover’s life. On the other hand, neither would he have lived in a country in which he watched the slaughter of innocent people who served as bloody public spectacles because of their beliefs. Without the Reformation, he would have attended the same mass as every other good Catholic of Stratford-upon-Avon; the England of his forebears would also have been his to inherit spiritually. Their history and his would have been identical: Catholic, and European.
The Shakespeare story begins and ends in a Midlands market town. He always thought of this place as home and returned to it finally at the age of thirty-three. It marked him more than any other place, including the glitzy big city where he made his fortune. Knowing Shakespeare’s Stratford intimately is a prerequisite for forming a clear picture of the child who became the mature writer. If Shakespeare had never written anything at all, he would have remained a witty and resourceful glover in Henley Street, probably would have been featured in the annals of Stratford as a hardworking businessman who might have joined the council and become mayor, as his father had—something that he conspicuously avoided in his real life in Stratford. Though he would have attended the same local grammar school, his horizons would have been much more circumscribed. He would not have hobnobbed with the top people in London; there would probably have been no extramarital affairs, and above all there would have been no outlet for the pressure cooker that was his imagination. Wordsworth called this fissile inner core “the hiding places of man’s power.” Few passages in Shakespeare’s plays and poems better render his sense of the creative inner self than Richard II’s soliloquy in the dungeon of Pomfret Castle. The King is alone and abandoned, without a realm, or a crown, or human company. His boon companions, those parasites who poisoned his mind, the infamous “caterpillars of the Commonwealth,” are all gone. His world has contracted to his prison cell and in despair he decides to people it from within his own head: “My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,/My soul the father”; between them, these two will engender a virtual parallel universe, a “little world” just like the larger world itself. Inside his head, Richard is king of all he surveys and he freely weaves in and out of whichever role takes his fancy, whether king or beggar. So did Shakespeare. It may not be a coincidence that out of all his characters it should be a gay king to put in words the inner mechanisms of the imagination. Like Richard II, Shakespeare imagined worlds within worlds, and as with Richard so there are question marks hanging over Shakespeare’s sexuality. Before his brain and soul could merge and multiply, Shakespeare needed to give them sustenance. This he did with an impressive amount of reading. He could never have done that if he had stayed in Stratford, even though his Stratford education provided him with the first key to the portals that led to Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Plautus, and Terence. His years at the grammar school had equipped him with a superb command of rhetoric and an introduction to the classics.
Stories about Shakespeare started to circulate in his lifetime, and they continued in Stratford after his death and during the lives of his daughters and granddaughter. The material reality of sixteenth-century Stratford was Shakespeare’s habitat. This was the physical space that the greatest writer of all time inhabited, and eventually he himself became his hometown’s favorite subject of folklore. As it happens the lasting Stratford stories about Shakespeare have an uncanny habit of turning out to be true, or very nearly so.
Copyright © 2007 by René Weis. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
Map: Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's Time,
Map: Henley Street in Shakespeare's Time,
1. Stratford 1564: Birth of a Genius,
2. William Shakespeare's Schooldays: c.1570–c.1578,
3. Meeting the Neighbors in 1582,
4. Enter Wife and Daughter: 1582–83,
5. Poaching from the Lucys: 1587?,
6. Bound for London: 1587,
7. Early Days in Shoreditch: 1587–90,
8. Likely Lads: Kit Marlowe and Will Shakespeare,
9. Living the Sonnets: 1590–,
10. The Rival Poet: 1592–93,
11. A Twenty-first-Birthday Poem: October 6, 1594,
12. Taming the Dark Lady: 1594–,
13. A Will "Made Lame by Fortune's Blows",
14. The Catholics and Oldcastle: 1594–96,
15. From Blackfriars to Bankside: 1596–99,
16. "Alack, My Child Is Dead": Wednesday, August 11, 1596,
17. Merry Wives and New Place: 1597,
18. Flight from the Fortress,
19. The Moneylender of London: October 25, 1598,
20. A Stratford Alexander in Henry V at the Globe: 1599,
21. Picturing a Poet and a Pantomime Rebellion: 1600–1601,
22. Daughters and Sons and Lovers: 1601–1602,
23. Affairs of the Body and Heart: 1602–1604,
24. "My Father's Godson": 1605–1606,
25. The Easter Rising of 1606: A Little Local Difficulty,
26. A Wedding and a Funeral: 1607,
27. Losing a Mother and a Daughter: 1609–1611,
28. "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night": 1612–15,
29. Shakespeare Dies: 1616,
30. Life After Death: 1623–,
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René Weis is a professor of English and vice-dean of the faculty of arts and humanities at University College, London. He is the author of The Yellow Cross and Criminal Justice.