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Rethinking the documentary evidence

The fraught questions of evidence come to the fore in this session. For all his iconic status, Shakespeare’s lives have been written from / with / against what has variously been thought of as a paucity of evidence—or what’s worse, a mismatch of background and achievement. With his paper “Shakespeare and Son: Fact and Invention in Shakespeare Biography,” Professor Graham Holderness will examine the peculiar historical deformation from which he claims Shakespeare biography suffers. Picking up from the basic gathering of materials in the eighteenth century, as considered by Professor Lynch, Holderness sees Shakespeare life-writing reaching an impasse by the mid-nineteenth century, when the largely legal and commercial evidence unearthed seemed radically disconnected from the spirit of the plays. Thereafter the Victorians preferred to seek the life in the works.


By the early 20th  century, however, Shakespeare biographers had become singularly assertive in their insistence that the available evidence sufficiently completed our picture of the poet’s life. A confident positivist historicism dominated the biographies of Sir Sidney Lee and E.K. Chambers, and was popularized by S. Schoenbaum. For them, a life of Shakespeare should consist of documentary facts; all undocumented traditions should be treated with suspicion or mistrust; and conjecture was forbidden. Shakespearean biography was declared a speculation-free zone.


In Holderness’s view, this approach failed to answer, or even address, many of the problems endemic to Shakespeare biography: the total absence of any personal traces among the mundane historical data; the missing years; the apparent incongruities between a life dominated by small-town and city commercial and property dealing; and a body of work by now almost universally acknowledged as the pinnacle of human artistic and intellectual achievement.


Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, Holderness will explore these problems via one figure about whom hardly anything is known, and yet who features as a significant presence in much biography and criticism: Shakespeare’s only son. Hamnet Shakespeare was born, twin-brother to Judith; and he died. The biographical record exhausts itself in that poignant attenuation. We know nothing else about his life, and nothing about Shakespeare’s feelings for him. Yet Hamnet’s short life, and even more his premature death, are widely thought to have registered significantly on both Shakespeare’s private life, and on his work (notably of course on Hamlet).


Beginning with James Joyce’s influential pages on Shakespeare in Ulysses, and drawing on both factual and fictional biographies, Holderness constructs a life for Hamnet that attempts to link family with public and professional life, Stratford with London, Shakespeare the private man with Shakespeare the actor and dramatist.  Using techniques developed in his Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Bloomsbury: Arden Shakespeare, 2011) Holderness situates Hamnet in the network of multiple and discontinuous ‘lives’ that have to be predicated in order to explain both the Shakespeare biography, and the Shakespearean oeuvre.


But do we really know that Stratford man, after all? Have we lost track of the private person in our search for the literary genius? And what value would there be in recovering that historical person? In “Anne by Indirection,” Professor Lena Cowen Orlin, Professor of English at Georgetown University, will draw on her monograph-in-progress, “The Private Life of William Shakespeare” to address some of the myths about Shakespeare’s life. She will re-focus attention on the civic and ecclesiastical records to build fresh contexts for understanding Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, his life in London, his retirement to Stratford, and his last will. Orlin’s extensive archival work has also informed her book, Locating Privacy in Tudor London (Oxford University Press, 2007).


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