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June 06, 2007

William D. Rubinstein finds very little revealed in the latest orthodox biography of William Shakespeare: Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography - Rene Weis

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography
by Rene Weis
Pp. xv+444. London: John Murray, 2007
Hardback, £25

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth and co-author of The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare - is unconvinced by the latest orthodox biography of William Shakespeare.

The passing of the seasons - or, perhaps, of the phases of the Moon - can be regularly marked by the appearance of yet another new biography of William Shakespeare. The latest one is Shakespeare Revealed, by Rene Weis, professor of English at University College London, who has (to his credit) written semi-popular books on quite unrelated subjects while also editing several new editions of Shakespeare's plays. How good is it?

Shakespeare Revealed is no worse than, and probably better, than most of those currently available. Weis writes well, with a distinct lack of either pretentiousness or pedantry. Some of the sources he has used are not well-known, and he is often ingenious (although his ingenuity is sometimes misplaced). As an example of a recent orthodox account of Shakespeare's life, one could do worse, although Park Honan's 1998 biography is still arguably somewhat better.

On the much-vexed issue of whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, Weis steers a welcome middle course between the many recent biographers who claim, based on virtually no real evidence, that he was, and the traditional view that he was a conforming Anglican. Significantly, Weis does not mention or discuss the now ubiquitous view that, as a youth, Shakespeare spent two years as a tutor in two Catholic gentry households in Lancashire, but instead presents only the traditional view that he poached deer, hit the road to London, held horses for theatre-goers as a kind of valet parking business, and went on from there. He has little or nothing to say about the so-called "lost years", the period in the 1580s and early 1590s when Shakespeare’s activities are a complete blank.

So far, so good. Because almost nothing whatever is known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, Weis - like so many others before him - has to create a 444-page biography by speculation, near-invention, and a long series of implausibilities bordering on the presentation of overt "whoppers" as facts, in a manner which would not be tolerated for one moment in the published biography of any other historical figure, especially by an academic.

Shakespeare is probably the only person in history of whom reputable publishers will regularly bring out long biographies whose claims about his life are unsupported by any real evidence whatever. Perhaps this strange reality may best be illustrated by considering four different claims about Shakespeare made by Weis in his book.

Weis accepts without question the hoary tale that Lord Southampton, to whom Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece were dedicated, gave Shakespeare £1000

to enable him to go through with a purchase which he had in mind to,
according to Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's earliest biographer, writing in 1709. According to Weis (p.115):
This gift…perhaps helped to redeem both Shakespeare's father's debts and his own fines, as well as funding the acquisition of his property.
This claim, which is unsupported by any real evidence whatever, is plainly nonsensical, as level-headed scholars have repeatedly pointed out. £1000 then was the equivalent of at least £1 million today. It was, roughly, 200 times as large as the annual income of a workingman in 1600, which would more accurately make it equivalent to at least £4 million today. For someone, even a nobleman, to give this sum to a little-known writer and actor for no apparent reason is absurd, and, in any case, Southampton was in no position to part with it. According to the entry by Park Honan on Southampton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
The myth that Southampton gave him £1000 is unfounded…Southampton had little but enthusiasm to offer any poet. He hardly had funds to spare; he lived on a fixed allowance and faced paying a gigantic fine to [Lord] Burghley, plus another vast sum to get his estates out of wardship. After he turned twenty-one in 1594, his need for money became desperate. In November of that year, he leased out part of Southampton House [his London mansion], and a few years later had to sell off five of his manors.
Needless to say, although Southampton left extensive papers, no evidence for any such gift to Shakespeare has been found. Indeed, Shakespeare is not mentioned, not even once, in any surviving document that Southampton wrote.

Weis states flatly, as if it were a matter of accepted fact, that (p. 251):
Shakespeare built up the library in New Place [his house in Stratford], and it was he who created the "study" which existed in the house many years after his death.
As everyone who has read about Shakespeare's life will surely know, however, there is no direct evidence that Shakespeare owned a single book, let alone a library. As has been repeatedly pointed out, Shakespeare did not mention any books in his will, and none known to have been owned by him has ever been found.

The "study" Weis introduces by sleight-of-hand was the "study of books" mentioned in the will of Shakespeare's son-in-law, Dr John Hall, drawn up just before he died in 1635, nineteen years after Shakespeare's death. There is no reference to this "study of books" anywhere else, and none from Shakespeare's lifetime. Hall and his wife, Shakespeare's daughter Susanna, inherited New Place and lived there after 1616. Hall was a learned and well-regarded physician who had graduated from Cambridge and is believed to have studied medicine in France; his own father had also been a physician of note, and was known to have owned many books. In an oral will dictated to his son-in-law Thomas Nash, Hall left his "study of books" to Nash.

In other words, and in pointed contrast to Shakespeare, Hall made special mention of his own books. There is no evidence of any kind that they had been owned by Shakespeare, or concerned anything besides medicine.

More tellingly, there is no evidence that the room Hall used as a "study of books" had been employed for that purpose by his father-in-law. There is no evidence - none - that this "study" had been "created" by Shakespeare: New Place had been built around 1490. There is some indirect evidence that Shakespeare carried out repairs on the house when he bought it in 1597, but none whatever that he "created" a "study". Similarly, there is no evidence that, prior to 1616, it was used as a "study" or housed a single book. (Surely any valuable books in Shakespeare's "library" would have been specifically mentioned in his will, with particular recipients noted from among his London writing and acting friends.) Weis's statement here seems to sail very close to the wind in its disingenuousness.

Somewhat strangely, even bizarrely, Weis (pp. 163-176) believes that Shakespeare was lame. In several of his Sonnets, Shakespeare mentions his lameness. In Sonnet 37, he states that:

So I, made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite./
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.
Virtually without exception, all commentators believe that Shakespeare was here writing metaphorically, and that his "lameness" referred to his inability to carry out his practical aims. (If this Sonnet was actually written, as I believe, by Sir Henry Neville in 1601-3, while imprisoned in the Tower alongside Southampton, its meaning is also quite clear.) Weis, however, believes that Shakespeare meant this literally, although he also notes that no one among his contemporaries who commented personally on Shakespeare ever mentioned his lameness.

Shakespeare, I suppose, might have been lame, although this sits rather uneasily - to put it mildly - with his further contention that "probably on foot" Shakespeare often walked (p. 85):

the hundred-odd miles from Stratford to London. People as a rule walked far more [then, and]... there was as yet no regular coach service between London and the Midlands.
Shakespeare's acting company, moreover, frequently toured the country, giving performances in many provincial towns. Presumably a lame man would have lagged far behind, cursing his faster colleagues and being cursed or laughed at by them, as in a scene from a low-grade black comedy. Was this really likely?

Weis also believes that the "Dark Lady" of the Sonnets was Emilia Lanier (nee Bassano), whose Italian, probably but not definitely Jewish father, was a leading musician in London. This woman was a talented poet in her own right. Bassano was famously first proposed as the "Dark Lady" by A. L. Rowse, and Weis has accepted his identication, with little in the way of acknowledgment. Rowse's claim was apparently based on the misreading of an Elizabethan text, as has been widely noted. But there are many other difficulties, as usual, in accepting Lanier as the "Dark Lady". While she was the daughter of an Italian-born musician, Baptista Bassano, her mother was an Anglo-Saxon Englishwoman, Margaret Johnson. There is no direct evidence that she was "dark". Although Weis confidently states that (p. 148):
Her skin colour would probably have been olive rather than English "white",
because she came from "a Venetian Jewish musical dynasty", Sephardic Jews, like Spinoza or Disraeli - as someone named Weis ought surely to know - have exactly the same skin colouration as any other Europeans. There are, moreover, no pictures of Lanier, so Weis is simply making an assumption.

He also suggests that the character "Baptista" in Taming of the Shrew was named for Lanier's father. Apart from the implausibility of this suggestion per se, Baptista Bassano died in 1576, when Shakespeare was twelve. Shakespeare plainly never met Baptista Bassano, and there is no reason to suppose that he ever heard of him.

Emilia Lanier was, moreover, the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who was at once: Queen Elizabeth's cousin; the Lord Chamberlain responsible for licensing all plays; and the Patron of Shakespeare's acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It is thus difficult to think of anyone less likely to have been the object of Shakespeare's attempts at seduction, when his efforts were guaranteed to result in the loss of both his career and his head. As evidence for his claim about Lanier, Weis cites an anecdote in a 1759 work by one Thomas Wilkes, who stated that Shakespeare tried to seduce (pp. 151-2):

a young lady…the favourite of an old rich merchant.
However, Hunsdon was not a "merchant", but a noble landowner and courtier, and no one at the time, if this anecdote is factual, would have confused the two ranks. Finally, there is not one iota of evidence that Shakespeare has Lanier in mind as his "Dark Lady": the claim is pure surmise.

These four examples of the sheer dubiety of very much in Weis's biography might well be multiplied tenfold. Yet, as noted, Shakespeare Revealed is no worse, and in many ways is arguably better, than most of the twenty or more biographies of Shakespeare currently on offer. It is safe to say that, with the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, in the case of no other subject of a full-scale biography would any sane biographer attempt to construct a work which consists of ninety per cent of supposition if not outright invention, and ten per cent of facts.

In contrast, biographies of Shakespeare's literary contemporaries like Jonson, Marlowe, or Donne, have a sufficient store of well-established facts and evidence to produce well-documented biographies: with Shakespeare alone, there is nothing, or virtually nothing, to draw upon. But - in contrast to his contemporaries - Shakespeare is arguably the most deeply researched human being in history. It is safe to say that for every scholar or investigator who has researched the life of, say, Ben Jonson, there have been 500 who have tried to conduct research on the life of Shakespeare, and literally every scrap of paper from the Elizabethan period has been poured over for some new evidence about his life and his writing career. Nothing - absolutely nothing - ever turns up, and arguably palpable nonsense of the type found here and in many other works is the normal result. At some stage, surely, reasonable people will conclude that that is because there is nothing to be found.

To read more on the Social Affairs Unit Web Review by Prof. Rubinstein on his contention that Sir Henry Neville is the true author of William Shakespeare's plasy, see Is Sir Henry Neville the true author of Shakespeare's plays?, William Shakespeare and Sir Henry Neville: A conspiracy or an agreement? and Sir Henry Neville and the Sonnets: Do the Sonnets show that Shakespeare's work was in fact written by Sir Henry Neville? William D. Rubinstein thinks so. To read a critical review of Prof. Rubinstein's thesis, see Lincoln Allison's The Play's the Thing, remember - Lincoln Allison unmasks the true author of Shakespeare's plays, William Shakespeare.

Brenda James' and William D. Rubinstein's The Truth Will Out (Longmans, London, 2005) recently appeared in paperback in Britain and in an American edition, published by HarperCollins. William D. Rubinstein is also the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.


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