Books

Millennium man

An engaging biography re-creates Shakespeare

Brian Bethune February 7 2000
Books

Millennium man

An engaging biography re-creates Shakespeare

Brian Bethune February 7 2000

Millennium man

Books

An engaging biography re-creates Shakespeare

Brian Bethune

After five years of “living with the bloke,” biographer Anthony Holden cheerfully agrees, he couldn’t have done better with the timing of his new book, William Shakespeare (Fenn, $36.95). The Bard’s latest days of glory show no signs of abating. The past few years have seen a half-dozen film adaptations, not to mention the 1999 Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love—a movie actually about him. This year brings director Julie Taymor’s Titus, a critically acclaimed version of a play even die-hard bardolaters had preferred to sweep under the rug. In Britain, recent polls voted him Man of the Millennium and named Hamlet as the era’s masterwork, surpassing even Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It has turned out to be the perfect climate for

a popular biography, Holden says, the first in three decades, written in accordance with his guiding credo: “Every generation has the right to re-create Shakespeare in its own image.”

For Holden, the author of biographies of Laurence Olivier, Tchaikovsky and Prince Charles, that re-creation naturally entails a thorough rehashing of ageold disputes over aspects of one of the most examined lives ever lived—Shakespeare’s sexuality, for instance, or his youthful deer-poaching habits. But what makes Holden’s new life both informative and engaging is his boundless enthusiasm, his thorough grasp of recent scholarly work and his pugnacious attitude. Holden is contemptuously dismissive of the anti-Stratfordians, the collective name given to those who believe that plays of such astonishing artistry must have been written by someone—

anyone—other than country bumpkin William Shakespeare. Holden disposes of the “tedious, classridden distraction” in a mere seven paragraphs.

He exhibits an even deeper ire for academic biographers, whom he accuses of becoming so bogged down in disputes over such minutiae as Elizabethan tooth-brushing habits that they have lost track of their subject. Holden singles out a 1998 biography for suggesting Shakespeare delayed publishing his sonnets until 1609 to avoid scandalizing his mother, who died the year before. “Typical ivorytower thinking,” he told Macleans in a recent interview. “It wasn’t like that then. An author didn’t send off a copy of his new book to his mom to put in the womens institute so the other mothers could say”—here Holden adopts a voice like that of a Monty Python character in drag — “ ‘Ooh, I see your boy’s doing well.’ ” It’s a somewhat ungracious rant considering Holden’s own debt to the work of professional historians. During the Bard’s so-called lost years—from 1579, when the 15-year-old William can be expected to have left Stratford grammar school, to 1592, when he is first mentioned as a London playwright— Shakespeare appears only three times in the historical record. There is his 1582 marriage to the pregnant, 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, and then baptisms of his daughter, Susanna, six months later and his twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. Holden’s theory of what young Will was up to before he joined the theatre: his family, secret Roman Catholics in an era when adherence to the old faith was a crime tantamount to treason, had sent him 175 km north to safety in Lancashire, the last stronghold of their illegal faith.

The suggestion is carefully argued and backed by persuasive evidence.

Glove-maker John Shakespeare, the poets father, was fined several times for missing Sunday services at his Anglican parish church, no light matter during the Reformation. Scholars have recently identified several openly Catholic relatives and friends. Some of them were among the almost 200 Catholics publicly executed during Elizabeth Es reign—castrated, hanged, cut down while still living, drawn and quartered.

Above all there is the English translation of a Catholic testament found during roof repairs to the Shakespeares’ home in 1751. In the section on the vital importance of the sacrament of penance, the document refers to the terrifying prospect of dying without confession, “cut off in

the blossom of my sins.” Holden finds numerous reflections of this theology in Hamlet, most tellingly when the Ghost of Hamlet’s father laments: “Cut off, even in the blossoms of my sin. . . . With all my imperfections on my head.” And Holden regards his thesis as proven by the 1581 will of Alexander Hoghton, a Catholic who lived in Lancashire, which asks for his heirs to be “friendly unto William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me.” Despite his careful work on that case, Holden is hardly likely to ever be accused of ivory-tower thinking. The former journalist has been an intense bardolater for years—he is now 52, Shakespeare’s age at death, as Holden himself points out—

and he clearly wants to believe any colourful detail he can about the poet. But he rejects the idea that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual, a widely adopted modern tenet shared even by American critic Harold Bloom, who thinks only three facts about Shakespeare can be gleaned from his plays. “He did not like lawyers,” Bloom writes in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, “preferred drinking to eating and evidently lusted after both genders.” Holden says the concept arises from a mistaken reading of the sonnets addressed to the “fair youth,” the famously handsome Earl of Southampton. But in Sonnet 20, the poet makes his own preferences clear with a coarse Elizabethan pun on “prick,” which tells the Earl, Holden argues, that “you are of no sexual use to me.” However much Holden tries to hew to his narrow road, scorning academic caution while chiding previous biographers for letting “their imaginations run riot,” he can be pretty riotous himself. Writing of King John, Holden finds the verses on the death of young Prince Arthur so moving—so real—that he adjusts the date of the play’s composition to after the I death of Shakespeare’s own i son, 11-year-old Hamnet. That is exactly the experience shared by thousands of readers who have been moved to conclude that the Bard must have trained as a soldier or falconer, sailor or lawyer, doctor or stable boy, so expert are the plays’ references to those trades. Holden is rueful but unrepentant when reminded that most scholars place the writing of King John before Hamnet’s death. “Oh, you’re just making it hard for a biographer,” he says, throwing up his hands.

Holden acknowledges that one thing is missing from his biography. “I often wonder,” he says, “did Shakespeare know how good he was? I still don’t know that, or how he did what he did, how to explain him. He was so infinitely adaptable.” Just like his life. E3