'A Plague o' Both Your Houses...'

Shakespeareans in Conflict



Encounter, April 1989; © The Estate of Eric Sams 


Here are the old guard and the avant-garde Shakespeareans, still locked in their perpetual conflict with each other and with everyone else in the professional field. To the lay on­looker, all these jarring factions stand on the wrong side. The writers under review are dons, or at least donnish. But teachers soon start to assume that whatever they keep on telling us must be true. Then their preconceptions typically take total precedence over fact and argument; so their contentions remain academic, which has come (for that very reason) to mean pointless. Dr Rowse's Shakespeare the Man [1] is the least unreliable. As an historian, Rowse must show some deference to dates and documents; but he habitually chooses among and within them, to suit his own strong feelings. Thus the biographical testimony of John Aubrey, avowedly based on special enquiry among those connected with Shakespeare in Stratford and London, is treated with reasonable respect, if a shade patronisingly ("there is usually something in what Aubrey says"). This assessment, however, is set aside on the crucial question of Shakespeare's arrival in London, which Dr Rowse arbitrarily allots to "one fine day in the later 1580s". Aubrey's estimate of c. 1582 remains unmentioned; and that oversight may well have lost five formative years. Supporting evidence for an early start was also offered by Shakespeare's first detailed biographer, Nicholas Rowe (also after due enquiry); but he is not even named, let alone cited.

    Again, we are told as a fact that the young Shakespeare was primarily an actor, although common sense and plain testimony alike insist that he was primarily a dramatic poet. Peter Levi, as so often, has in his Life and Times of William Shakespeare [2] an astute and arresting thought: he doubts that "Shakespeare started as an actor and nothing else ... since he was certainly a talented writer and never became a famous actor". That approach is surely sound enough; but it leads only into the blind alley of personal opinion. Why not start from Aubrey's and Rowe's explicit assurances that the subject of their biographies, to whom they stand closer by three centuries, was a successful playwright soon after his early arrival inLondon?

    Dr Rowse freely reinterprets the literary texts as well as the biographical evidence. Thus Sonnet 107, by which time Elizabeth I "hath her eclipse endured", is to be dated 1594 instead of the usual and "obvious! [3] 1603, when she died. So we are instructed that "endured" meant "come through" in Eliza­bethan English. This first begs the question by assuming an Elizabethan (i.e. pre-1603) date; then overlooks the far more famous counter-example of "men must endure their going hence", which they do not come through; and finally defies the readily verifiable fact that Shakespeare took the transitive verb to mean "bear, suffer, put up with" in all his other 90 usages, and "come through" in none of them. Again, Sonnet 86 must relate solely to Christopher Marlowe, so its past tenses must post-date his death in 1593, and "by spirits taught" must mean that he dabbled in spiritualism. "Nothing surprising" in that, says Dr Rowse. Sometimes the historian gets his dates definitely wrong, in contexts which invalidate his claim to have settled the chronology of the plays "once and for all". Thus his statement that The Taming of the Shrew was acted in1594 is entirely groundless. So is his assertion that Francis Collins wrote Shakespeare's will.

    The most egregious instance of such inventiveness is the positive and insistent identification of one Emilia Lanier, née Bassano, as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. There is no trace of evidence that Shakespeare ever so much as set eyes on her, let alone made her his mistress and immortalised her. Why, for example, except as a matching accessory alter the theory, must this daughter of Margaret Johnson have been "exceptionally dark", with "her own dark beauty", and indeed "extremely dark", with "raven-black eyes, black hair, eye­brows and eyelashes", or "raven-black hair and dark eyes"? Even her colouring is a pigment of the imagination, which is first promoted by Dr Rowse to an historical fact, and then hailed as "my original discovery".

    Such blots disfigure what could and should have been the clearest of copybook biographies. They remain uneradicated after fifteen years available for second thoughts about this third edition. But Dr Rowse will be remembered for the strength of his main methodology rather than the weakness of its aberrations. As the 21st century will acknowledge, he has truly revolutionised Shakespeare scholarship by his robust rejection of once-fashionable authorities, such as the "imperceptive" E. K. Chambers and the "erratic" Dover Wilson, together with the "liberal intellectuals" who trade (in every sense) on outmoded and unevidenced opinion.

    As soon as our modern editorial experts are challenged and cross-checked on Rowsean lines, their failings and follies become manifest. As Rowse has proved, the historico-logical approach by way of factual data is infinitely preferable. If he himself has gone too far, that is what pioneers are born and bound to do. What matters most is his right direction, which points the way forward for all future followers. His rational acceptance of Southampton as sonnet-recipient, for example, in accordance with the principle of economy in hypothesis, affords a firm foundation for chronology and critique. So does his equally crucial yet still neglected insistence on the close interlinkage between life and works: "...a real writer does not disguise himself" is his typically simple yet compelling formulation. In this context, his commentary on The Two Gentlemen of Verona [4] (the main new material in this revised edition) also has lasting value.

    Though a poet as well as an historian, Dr Rowse self-denyingly concentrates on the life of Shakespeare. As a poet and a Professor of Poetry, Peter Levi understandably concentrates on the works. He is thus even more closely committed to the unfashionable assumption that artists' personalities and characters can be inferred from their art. His tales from Shakespeare are far longer, if not taller, than Dr Rowse's, and their connection with the "Life and Times" of the title is often tenuous; but Levi's literary analyses and original researches are alike impressive. No finer intellect, scholarship, or poetic sensitivity has applied itself to Shakespeare biography in this century. As if in due acknowledgement, his book is not only longer and larger than Rowse's, but far better produced and illustrated; yet it comes from the same publisher at £2 less, which must be a bargain. It abounds in informed insights, including the best account since 1952 [5] of Shakespeare's Ovidian and other classical sources and influences.

    Levi's writing is unfailingly imaginative and poetical. So, unfortunately, is his reasoning, with an avowed subjectivism that teeters on the verge of the Narcissistic ("I incline to the view", and so forth), and sometimes falls headlong in the middle of its own reflections. The Introduction announces that "there can be no science of Shakespeare". But in some sense there can, should, and must be - as Dr Rowse rightly insists. Of course we are all entitled, if we wish, to vaunt our personal feelings over anyone else's arguments, and to say so, freely and firmly. But then we are writing our own biography, not Shakespeare's.

    Besides, even Professor Levi agrees on the main axiom of scientific method: ". . . the facts . . . must be established as firmly as possible . . , one must not make up fantasies. . . ."  Hardly are those words out when he starts making up fantasies. Thus his account of "the sort of inference one must exclude" contains a dozen mistakes and misstatements in its 20 lines, and results in the a priori exclusion of some perfectly sound and highly significant inferences about the date and history of HamletThe transcription of the manuscript that Levi attributes to Shakespeare on technical graphological grounds of letter-formation (such as "Marston's S and W") contains some 30 misreadings of letters, in two pages. His dating ofHenry VI, crucial for his chronology ("which we can argue closely"), derives solely from a confusion between the Quarto and Folio texts. The bright insights and polished prose are too often tarnished, if not corroded, by such slackness, which extends as far as the inadequate index.

    If only these two books could be made available in thoroughly-revised editions, their parallel and complemen­tary approaches could together provide a much-needed definitive biography to replace the misleadingly negative scepticism of Samuel Schoenbaum, although his William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975) will remain an essential source for students because of its copious facsimile illustrations. As it is, their brilliant flashes of insight are so chequered with private obscurantism that one begins to yearn for the steady dimness of simple mediocrity.

    The various contributors to The Shakespeare Myth [6] are at least consistent. None of them offers any seri­ous study of any aspect of the life or the works. These pages are serenely untroubled by any detailed reference to any actual Tudor or Stuart date or thought. Their topic is con­temporary cultural politics; their typical tone is instantly set by the editor's opening appeal to "those still fortunate enough, in Thatcher's Britain, to have access to a £2O note" ­ namely himself and his collaborators, if no one else. They are all Heads of Drama, Readers, Lecturers, or Course Leaders in Universities, Colleges, or Institutes (their capitals). They record their interviews with even fatter cats such as Sam Wanamaker and Jonathan Miller, who are shot at with loaded questions. The main contributors demonstrate, often very compellingly, how the Shakespeare industry interlocks with the capitalist ethos and the profit motive. Graham Holderness specialises in commerce and communications, David Margolies and Derek Longhurst in popular culture, Christopher McCullough and David Hornbrook in education, Simon Shepherd in homosexuality, and Ann Thompson in women and the family (using the word "feminist" some 30 times in her first three pages, in case we miss the point). John Drakakis dauntlessly defends the Southwark community, including its much-maligned road-sweepers, against unfeeling oppression by the power élite and pressure groups of the new Globe project. Alan Sinfield perceptively discusses recent British plays (by Stoppard, Marowitz, Bond and Wesker) related to Shakespeare texts.

    These teachers passionately espouse their own "Shakespeare Myth" myth. It seems that his art has replaced religion as the opium of the people; so the workers need protection against his works and their use as weapons in the class war. The fiercest denouncer of bourgeois privilege is Terry Eagle­ton, Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, who openly deplores the way in which other literati "get where they are today". His dossier of actors and directors ominously records "the Reaganite Michael Caine" and the "bland Hampstead bohemianism" of Jonathan Miller. Terry Hands is caught out cravenly subscribing to "the Great Man theory of history"; Michael Croft even "rejects the whole notion of a popular theatre", like the populace itself. Eagleton's own writing is anything but demotic. He has far outgrown the working-class roots he describes, and nowadays talks fast and posh, like a real toff, with his "microtactics" and his "depoliticisings". I bet his old mates back in the buildings can't make him out. His weird polysyllabic jargon is shared by all these teachers of English throughout their University Press publication. Their discovery of a central contradiction within the capitalist system that employs them is surely revealing as well as convincing.

    I fear, however, that they have all failed to draw the manifest inference from their own premises. If there is indeed in élitist Shakespeare conspiracy, they are part of it. They are its symptoms, not its cure. A truly radical approach would reject all academic attitudes to Shakespeare, including their own, and start again from the historical roots, with a materialist dialectic. The Bard would then emerge as an heroic peasant and worker in outright revolt against an oppressive squire­archy (Sir Thomas Lucy) and a tyrannical monarch (Elizabeth I). He was "for an age" in improving the lot of the labouring classes, including his own father, by personal benefaction; he is "for all time" in uniting the human race, internationally. The early texts published under his name, such as Contention andTrue Tragedy (c. 1590) would then take their rightful place in the canon and chronology. Their modish dismissal as "Bad Quartos", "piracies", and the like would be diagnosed as deriving from upper-class contempt for ordinary folk and their everyday activities and thought-processes. The élitist notion of the young Shakespeare as a highly-educated classicist and late developer, beginning his playwriting career at 27 with sophisticated comedies of high life, would he derided as blatant snobbery. Private profit would be identified as the main motive for keeping such non­sense in print, instead of withdrawing the standard editions for rewriting, or recycling.

     There are indeed firm factual grounds [7] for such a reappraisal, which would be truly revolutionary. But it will no more come from the Left wing than from any other part of the air­borne academic Pegasus, always more at home with its head in the clouds than its feet on the ground. On each of the rare occasions when The Shakespeare Myth takes a look at real life in the real world of the past - such as Holderness's casual glance at the deer-poaching "legend" - it supinely accepts the propaganda against which it ostensibly inveighs. What Ann Thompson calls her "hard-won expertise in Shakespeare studies" is notable for its slavish adherence to the male upper­class consensus about the dating, status, and sources of The Taming of the Shrew, [8] which is utterly misconceived. Peter Levi and A. L. Rowse, despite their own protestations of independence, also unquestioningly adopt orthodox academic assumptions (for example, about "late start" and "Bad Quarto" respectively) for which no trace of factual evidence has ever existed.

    These teachers, right, left, and centre, simply cannot bring themselves to believe that much of what they have been taught, and are now themselves teaching, is totally and demonstrably untrue. The present position of Shakespeare studies is even more parlous than they suppose.


[1] Shakespeare the Man. By A. L. Rowse. Macmillan, £18.95.

[2] The Life and Times of William ShakespeareBy Peter Levi. Macmillan, £16.95.

[3] See Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by John Kerrigan (Penguin, 1986), p. 319: "on the basis of allusions" and "stylistic evidence".

[4] A. L. Rowse in The Spectator16 July 1963p. 26.

[5] The publication date of J.A.K. Thomson's Shakespeare and the Classics

[6] The Shakespeare Myth, edited by Graham HoldernessManchester University Press,£5.95.

[7] See, in Encounter, Eric Sams, "Where There's a Will ... The Oxford or the Stratford Shakespeare?" (June 1987, pp. 54-57) and "Shakespeare, or Bottom? The Myth of `Memorial Reconstruction"' (January 1989, pp. 41-45).

[8] See Eric Sams, "The Timing of the Shrews", Notes and Queries, vol. 32, no. 1 (March 1985), pp. 33-455 and vol. 33, no. 2 (June 1986), pp. 222-23.