One of the more disappointing books we’ve read of late, partly because of the strength of expectation, must be Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare, the biography. With a supposedly subtle white glove draped across the highly designed front cover, to suggest the weave of everything, which Falstaff comments on in The Merry Wives of Windsor, this hefty tome is surprisingly conventional and very much one for the Establishment too.
Reassuringly researched, with reportedly a team behind him to check the facts, and so wary of making mistakes, it attempts a different voice by using short chapters and unusual quotations to take us back to a time, successful sometimes in a linguistic impression of chrisolm oil at a Stratford birth, for instance – as in the language making the texture of lives – yet says nothing really new or important at all. It is not that ignoring all the competing theories about Shakespeare is wrong, what is is ignoring the intense passions and conflicts that a period and the problems of history itself evoke and why.
The reason of course is that Shakespeare is such an all-encompassing writer, the poet of all time, that any attempt at conventional biography as an explanation or reflection of his genius, his facility, fails. You need someone like the Russian surrealist Bulgakov, who wrote his fictive Life of Mr Moliere, to try and unite the art and the facts. It is only ever an attempt. But what is so disappointing is that a brilliant creative novelist like Ackroyd, wunderkind of imaginative time travel, and fakery too, above all such a specialist on the London of the period, just opts for safety. So the author who wrote The Thames, Sacred River, and spoke on Dessert Island Disks of being on the side of the ‘spiritual’ camp, in the science-faith split, just fights shy of the issues that might have struck a real sounding bell to Shakespeare and the mystery of his linguistic ‘miracle’, language’s miracle, at a very specific time. Of course for everyone who approaches Shakespeare there is a kind of sanctity that must be acknowledge too, the author who authors trust above all, (except Tolstoy), but that sanctity might come with a little more profanity.
In assuring us Shakespeare is such a conventional writer then, so interested in power, for instance, so consumed by Kingship, that naturally reflected his career path or even his ‘politics’, he sometimes bores, while also touching on ideas that might be really interesting. That those original Wooden O’s were kinds of ‘wombs’ of creativity, for instance, seen within the context of a language in astonishing flux and self-discovery, at a period of intense spiritual conflict during The Reformation. Actual places of magic then, as Katherine Duncan Jones argues. Or that for the author who conceived of such strange, eventful histories, baldly factual history is not quite enough, especially because Shakespeare was so aware of it.
There are flashes of real creative insight, for instance when Ackroyd squashes the competing authorship and anti-Stratford theories with the simple remark that Shakespeare could not have lied about the happiness of a rich Stratford and Warwickshire childhood without some serious psychic disturbance on the surface of his plays. He is a man who knows the connections between writing and the life truths. Yet in just suring up a reassuring view of the validity of word of mouth reports, John Aubrey’s first impressions, or vignets around the few details there are, like those yards of red cloth and Shakespeare and the King’s Men processing in the train of James I, when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became The Kings Men in 1604, he voids half the point of ‘the play’, the first professional players and playwrights in their new theatres and the struggle of meaning through art.
The biggest cop out is that ‘Shakespeare had no humanitarian purpose’, or it was really only about survival, money and putting bums on seats; the great entertainer, at the centre of a playwriting factory in London. You know what he means about the Humanitarian purpose question, as though we had to fix Shakespeare to a political party, and Dr Jonson said no one but a fool ever wrote for anything but money, but it is just rather disappointing about a writer who went so far and challenged himself so much.
Then there is his treatment of Southwark, that says so little about a place that was such an interesting Reformation fault line too. It is not the stewes, the brothels, or the bear baiting and gamboling dens there that are so important, but the position of the Bishop of Winchester, St Saviours church, Ben Jonson’s description of The Globe as a ‘fortress to the whole parish’ and why Shakespeare might have followed John Gower’s and not Chaucer’s literary tradition, or how the ‘liberties’ affected Shakespeare, younger and older.
The truth is not nearly enough work has been done on the significance of early plays like the three parts of Henry VI, that so sound the historical importance of Southwark, and probably started around 1592. But Ackroyd, as if he is getting old and weary, in need of a literary pension himself, quickly voids the challenges of a place and has Shakespeare inured to it all, spending most of his time up on wealthier Silver Street, near the Cripplegate.
Yet Shakespeare spent at least ten years there, probably longer, it was the place of the Rose and Swan, and the locus of the Globe, so his creative outlet whether in London or Stratford. While in picking John Gower to be the Chorus for Pericles, in the year his brother Edmund died, 1607, with such an issue of brothels highlighted in that strange play, it suggests how significant a place was to his themes and even crises. Pericles is also a play that has a scenario of a coat of arms at its centre, a withered branch flowering at the top, when his youngest brother, also an actor in London, had just died within four months of his own infant son, who was marked down in the church register as ‘base born’. Perhaps it is one of the reasons for that much noted ‘sea-change’ in Shakespeare’s art, a phrase from The Tempest, towards romances trying to heal time and families.
The truth is though that all the clothes of elegant or nervous research around Ackoryd’s own words and insights swamp his own voice. So it is highly significant that he suggests Shakespeare was ‘protected’ on Bankside and in London, in the backing of patrons or powers-that-be who were perhaps not exactly ‘establishment’, yet it is never really followed up. It would be the antidote to a book like 1599 by James Shapiro that takes a boy’s own view of the player’s independence, carrying that wood south of the river to build The Globe and a thrilling year in Shakespeare’s life. The truth is though that Francis Meres suggests Shakespeare had already well succeeded in London before The Globe was even built, as Ackroyd calls Shakespeare a ‘phenomenon’, and The Globe’s position within the skirts of the Liberty of the Bishop of Winchester is still of untapped significance.
If nothing comes from nowhere, except perhaps Cordelia’s silent love, it is even more important at a time where English history itself seems to appear from nowhere. Ackroyd touches on one of the keys to it all, language as metaphor, those clear springs in the old city, which borders on saying something else, and the uncertain ‘map’ of place that cannot be subsumed to the apparent facts, which is also the opposite of Shapiro’s high American literalism and attempt at precise factual, even journalistic detail. Yet Shapiro succeeds where Ackroyd fails because of the passion of his imaginative engagement, the sensitivity of his discourse about Shakespeare’s Stratford influences and the effect of plays like Henry V, Julius Caesar or As you Like It on contemporary audiences and why. That of course is not enough either, always the poet vanishes again, as was his intention and freedom, but it proves the need for something the great writer knew above all, so underestimated as instinctive storyteller, the compelling narrative.
PHOENIX ARK PRESS