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Biography, Theater, History

With this session, attention turns back to context. Among the many possible subtitles for a biography, “life and times” has been a perennially popular one. Lois Potter, Ned B. Allen Professor Emerita of English at the University of Delaware, is author of The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). She turned to Shakespeare’s biography after editing two Shakespeare plays, writing extensively on performance history, and reviewing many Shakespeare productions. In her paper, “Shakespeare, Man of the Theater,” she will focus not only on Shakespeare the actor but on the more specialized figure of the actor-playwright. She will also consider some specifically theatrical issues about which much new information has recently become available: the importance of the collaborators with whom Shakespeare wrote; the actors in his company (especially the boy actors) and their possible influence on his writing; the nature of his audiences; the extent to which he was involved in his plays as actor and director, and whether this changed over time. 


The chronology of the plays is another area where context has mattered. What difference does a date make? Margreta de Grazia will redirect attention to a different kind of evidence—not of the life, but of the work. Arguably, the thirty-six printed plays, the sum of a professional career in the theater, are the invaluable remains of the man. Much scholarly work over many generations has been devoted to establishing a chronology for those texts. De Grazia, Emerita Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of such books as Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Clarendon Press, 1991) and Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge University Press, 2007). She has had a longstanding interest in how important chronology has been to the connecting of the life of Shakespeare with the works of Shakespeare.


It would seem that once we have dates for both the events in his life and for the writing of his works, we can make connections between them. But the problems with such an assumption are legion. Biographical information is scant and the dating of the canon uncertain. To complicate matters further, even if we think we know the date of a given work, it is the date of its publication, not of its composition. In addition, the first record we have of its publication tells us the latest point when it could have been written, but not the earliest. Most vexing of all, there is every indication that what is experienced in life can be profoundly out of sync with when and how it registers in consciousness, is remembered, and perhaps above all mimetically rendered (as play or poem). Professor de Grazia will study the dating of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as the most problematic of the works to date, but also the one we are keenest to date as the only work by Shakespeare written in the first person. All 154 were published in 1609, but they could have been written as early as the 1580s, each at a different time.


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