Shakespeare Revealed & Shakespeare the Thinker

(John Murray £25)
(Yale £19.99)

Biographies of Shakespeare are appearing more regularly than productions of even his most popular plays.  In recent years James Shapiro, Jonathan Bate, Michael Woods, Stanley Wells, Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Ackroyd have all retold the familiar story, putting differing emphasis on Shakespeare the Catholic, the Londoner, the man of the theatre and the man of his time.  Now Rene Weis joins their band, taking his cue from Keats’ remark that ‘Shakespeare led a life of Allegory:  his works are the comments on it.’

At times Weis’s determination to mine the plays for biographical evidence lacks conviction, as when he takes stock references to schoolboys in As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet as allusions to the poet’s childhood.  Overall, however, he succeeds admirably, offering a welcome corrective to the tendency, still prevalent in some quarters, to dismiss a writer’s life from consideration of his work.

Weis is thought-provoking from the start as he ponders the effect on the fifteen year-old Shakespeare of the raw, raucous birth of his youngest sibling.  He is more willing than most to allow Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway a happy marriage, seeing the fact that such a canny businessman bought no property in London until the end of his career as a sign that his heart remained in Stratford.  Even the infamous legacy of the second-best bed is, to Weis, no more than a recognition that his daughter Susanna and her physician husband were now sleeping in the best one.

This level-headedness is typical of an approach that refuses to seek for difficulties where none occur.  Unlike many commentators who dislike the idea of our greatest poet as a sixteenth century Eddie Grundy, Weis takes on trust the celebrated poaching story, saving his energies for a detailed examination of the texts.  This pays dividends, not least when, citing all the references to disability in the Sonnets, along with the inordinate emphasis on the misshapen Richard III and Hamlet’s reference to the congenital ‘defect’, he wonders whether Shakespeare himself might have had a limp.

He excels in exploring the influence on the plays of Shakespeare’s children, particularly the death of his son Hamnet, seeing in Viola and Sebastian’s reunion in Twelfth Night an expression of the writer’s longing that Hamnet should be reunited with his living twin, Judith.  At times Weis can take his speculations too far as when he finds in Shakespeare’s obsession with watery graves and sea rescues a hint that Hamnet drowned in the Avon.  If nothing else, the sea-storm motif occurs as early as The Comedy of Errors, which long predates Hamnet’s death.

Any attempt to link Shakespeare’s life and work must centre on the Sonnets, and Weis’s reading is close and convincing.   He follows the familiar identification of the beautiful youth with Southampton and the dark lady with Emilia Bassano while, more contentiously, seeing the rival poet as Christopher Marlowe.  Marlowe’s shadow looms larger here than in other recent accounts, with Weis emphasising how Shakespeare pays him explicit tribute in both the text of As You Like It and the situation and setting of The Merchant of Venice, whose central conflict he sees not as religious rivalry but as the shift from homoerotic love to marriage.

Weis’s study is vivid, accessible and profound.  It is joined on the groaning Shakespeare shelves by A.D. Nuttall’s more specialised Shakespeare the Thinker, which aims both to trace the development of Shakespeare’s thought and present a counterbalance to the two dominant schools of literary theory, Structuralism and New Historicism, with Nuttall contending, as must be obvious to any but the most doctrinaire critic, that the greater part of a literary achievement is the product of an individual author’s mind.

While Shakespeare the Thinker is aimed at the student rather than the general reader, it is far from stuffy, being peppered with allusions to the Iraq War, Mel Brooks, Mrs Thatcher, Star Trek and Wife Swap as well as earlier scholars.  Like Weis’s, Nuttall’s study is full of insights, such as how the four last romances have their genesis in The Comedy of Errors, how Falstaff’s ‘honour’ speech is the first example of a Shakespearian character’s philosophy and, in a highly original if not altogether convincing reading, how Measure for Measure is permeated by gnosticism.

On the debit side, having rightly rejected the mid-twentieth century bias against Shakespearean ‘characterisation’, he errs in the other direction by suggesting that Prospero’s animus towards Caliban derives from his own incestuous feelings for Miranda.  Above all, he underplays the role of religious conflict (which Weis correctly identifies as the dominant ideological struggle of the age) on Shakespeare’s thought and, particularly, on his most philosophical play, Hamlet.

The conjunction of these books is further proof that Shakespeare’s plays continue to offer as rich rewards to biographers and critics as to readers and audiences.