Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

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Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Nine possible 'short lives' of Shakespeare, based on specific facts and traditions, drawn from the existing documentary evidence and from biographical interpretation.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 215 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 9781441151858

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There is a subtle irony in the fact that the world’s best-known playwright, and possibly the most famous author of all time, is a character about whom so little is known for certain. Nevertheless, as we are looking at someone who died nearly 400 years ago, the indisputable documentary evidence is bound to be lacking.

This book emphasises the fact that his biographers (or would-be biographers) have so little to go on, as ‘the author’ is so visible through his works, but the private data remains largely mysterious and unfathomable. His career as a writer, his property dealings, the contents of his will, and the members of his family are common knowledge. Yet we only know approximately when he was born, and nothing about his relationship with his wife and children, how much he cared about his writing, what he died from, or what he thought about anything at all. Even knowledge of his personal likeness, and how faithful the existing images are, is uncertain. W.H. Auden is quoted as saying that ‘a shilling life’ will give us all the facts. In that case, we are unlikely to have a five-pound life.

A very comprehensive introduction giving the few definite facts and a look at the speculation on such matters as his relationships with other women (and men), his religion, and the possibility that he may have died from typhoid, syphilis, alcoholism, or even premature senility, is followed by nine possible short lives, based on specific facts and traditions, drawn from the documentary record and from biographical interpretation. According to Holderness, his subject has more lives than a cat, and nothing can kill his endlessly regenerating life stories.

The nine lives deal with various aspects of his life from what little factual evidence we have – as a writer, actor, businessman, butcher’s son, lover and husband, as a papist or Catholic, and finally on how authentic are the existing portraits . They are each paired with a short story on the associated theme, and the author is to be congratulated on writing them in several different styles. One, ‘The Shakespeare Code’, has more than a nod to Dan Brown, while others are in the vein of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway respectively. (I almost found myself wishing for another aping the inimitable prose of P.G. Wodehouse. Next time, maybe).

Shakespeare’s personal life in particular comes under the microscope. Was his marriage to Anne Hathaway merely one of convenience, and was he forced into it after getting her pregnant although he was really infatuated at the time with another woman, Anna Whately, instead? Were both names actually the same person, sometimes given as Anna Hathwey – a name which could easily be misread or mistranscribed over the years as either? Is it true that he died bitterly estranged from his wife? Or that like Wilde, despite being married with children, he might have been gay? After nearly 400 years, we are unlikely to be much the wiser?

As a biographical study, this is fascinating for the way in which it looks at possible interpretations of a long-bygone life. It does also make an unusual departure from the standard cradle-to-grave format of the conventional biography, when there are little more than the bare bones of fact for today’s writers to work with or add flesh on to. Whether we really learn more from these pages about Shakespeare as a man, or whether we learn more about the approach of a biographer towards his subject, is for the reader to judge, as was doubtless Holderness’s intention. It is not the lightest of reads, and really only recommended for the student or specialist. But any devotee of the Bard, or even of Tudor social history, will certainly find much to savour here.

Our thanks to Continuum for sending Bookbag a review copy.

For further reading, may we also recommend The Shakespeare Handbook by Michael Schmidt and Robert Maslen

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Buy Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness at Amazon.com.

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