As a prelude to sustained focus on biographies of Shakespeare—and as a context for those discussions—the first session addresses literary biography as a genre. Lawrence Goldman, Professor of History at the University of Oxford, is also Editor of the revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), the premier source of biographical information on figures from the British past. He will describe the special attention and consideration that was applied to the article on William Shakespeare—at approximately 40,000 words the longest in the Dictionary—as an exemplar of the Dictionary’s procedures and intentions. The Shakespeare essay was peer-reviewed by a panel of experts, as well as the editorial staff in Oxford, and was the subject of a day-long seminar among those experts.
Professor Goldman’s description of that process will open to a number of more general questions: How does the Oxford DNB deal with controversial lives in the past—where scholars disagree among themselves—and in the present—where the dictionary courts public disapproval of decisions to include criminals, malefactors, and celebrities? What are the criteria for inclusion in the Dictionary and the procedures taken to ensure that the biographies are accurate and also revelatory? The Dictionary is seen to fulfill a national function as a source of national information and memory; it must also meet the needs of scholars and be interesting to members of the general public. As such, it must be sensitive to the different audiences for biography and their respective needs. Its role in bringing together academic scholarship with a wider audience for history and biography will also be discussed: the Oxford DNB has helped bridge the gap between different groups of readers, amateur and professional, since its publication eight years ago.
Professor Ian Donaldson will speak next on “Interfiliations: Shakespeare and the Lives of Others.” Donaldson is Emeritus Professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford, 2011). Taking up the question of literary biography as a genre, he will argue that it is essentially a Romantic form. The emergence of the genre coincided significantly with the advent, towards the end of the eighteenth century, of new ways of viewing and valuing the life of the writer. It traced the trajectory of the individual life, including the formation of interiority. For critics like Coleridge and Carlyle, Shakespeare, whose seemingly transcendent genius was widely spoken of at that moment, appeared to float above and beyond the age in which he had lived.
Professor Donaldson will describe the often unwitting dependence of many of the written lives of William Shakespeare on the Romantic notion of literary exceptionalism. He will argue for a need to recover the more particular social elements from which that life draws its principal energies, including the constant interactions that life will have had with the lives of others. He will note in particular the need to attend closely to the habits of collaboration widespread in the theater—a topic that will be further explored in the course of the conference. Professor Donaldson will conclude with a call for a model of multiple biography, a model that explores not merely the life of Shakespeare but the lives of others with whom he worked and lived, tracing their many interactions and interfiliations.