America celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday this April 23 with a sonnet contest at the Folger Library and festivities at New York’s Shakespeare Society. But as Peter Ackroyd’s recent Shakespeare: The Biography reminds us, we’re not sure if April 23 was the day Shakespeare was born or the day his birth was assigned.
Do you care? It’s unfortunately typical of the slippery, unresolvable—and often tedious and irrelevant—conflicts of Shakespearean biography. It’s sad that some people forgo rereading or watching Shakespeare’s plays (have you seen the amazing new Laurence Olivier boxed set, especially the brilliantly iconic, diabolic Richard III?) and waste time on such evidence-deprived controversies as the recent dust-up between Germaine Greer in Shakespeare’s Wifeand Stephen Greenblatt (initially in Will in the World over the unanswerable question: Did Shakespeare love his wife? (Greer: Yes. Greenblatt: No. Actual evidence: Nil.)
A rare exception to the futility of biographical Shakespeare is Charles Nicholl’s recent The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street. Nicholl, a master at digging up four-century-old actual documentary evidence, focuses on a 1612 lawsuit in which Shakespeare gave testimony that reveals him to have been involved in a dispute over a daughter, a dowry, and a wig-maker he lived with, a veritable French farce originally enacted just at the time (1604) when he was writing some of his greatest tragedies. Nicholl turns the complex reverberations of the lawsuit into a highly entertaining introduction to Shakespeare’s London world.
Still, the best guide to centuries of Shakespearean biographical folly remains Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives, recently reissued (with a foreword by the Post’s Michael Dirda), which reveals just how much the fragmentary apocrypha of Shakespearean biography act as a Rorschach on which the biographers project their own fantasies.
Nonetheless, as I sought to demonstrate in The Shakespeare Wars, there are exciting and thought-provoking controversies about Shakespeare to be found, but about the words and the work, not the wife and the life.
Some of the most provocative and insightful “scholars” of Shakespeare are great directors such as the U.K.’s visionary Peter Brook (don’t miss his amazing film of King Lear starring one of the great actors of our age, Paul Scofield), the polemical Sir Peter Hall, and a group of Americans including New York’s Brian Kulick and Karin Coonrod, D.C.’s Michael Kahn, and Barry Edelstein, whose book Thinking Shakespeareis a particularly rewarding exploration of how Shakespearean actors seek to capture the thought behind the words.
Ah, but what are Shakespeare’s words? Did he revise them? Perhaps the single most important controversy among academics not mired in the now-antiquated discredited French farce of deconstructionism is the question of what kind of writer Shakespeare was. Was he the devil-may-care wastrel of Shakespeare in Love, who sent his manuscripts off to the playhouse and then fell to wenching? Or, as a highly influential group of textual scholars have argued, did he care enough about his work as literature to carefully revise some of his most famous works? The latter side of the case is most comprehensively argued by Lukas Erne in Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. Did he return to Hamlet for instance to make changes large and small that cumulatively give us two or more versions of that play (and Lear, too)?
Recently, the notoriously erudite footnote-laden Arden edition of Shakespeare caused a stir by giving us a unique three-text Hamlet edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor on the carefully argued belief that the three surviving texts of Hamlet—the 1604 “Good Quarto,” the posthumous 1623 Folio version, and the black sheep “Bad Quarto” (1603)—deserve separate consideration. (In two versions of Hamlet and the two versions of Lear, the dying, perhaps defining, words of the tragic heroes differ.)
The best way to experience the duality of the two most substantial Hamlet texts is to take a look at the online Enfolded Hamlet, which graphically dramatizes how many small yet telling differences there are and allows you to speculate about why Shakespeare (if it was he—it could have been some actor, printer, or theater manager) made the revisions. And, by the way, what is, to my mind, the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen—a recording of Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway stage performance (directed by the great John Gielgud)—is now out on DVD.
One final plea. I don’t want anyone to give up on live productions (see the National Endowment for the Arts list). But I’ve long argued that there are certain Shakespearean films that allow one to experience the greatest actors of the past century doing Shakespeare in a way you might not get a chance to see it live in your lifetime. And perhaps the greatest of these is Orson Welles’ compression of the two Henry IV plays under the title Chimes at Midnight. You can find some used versions on Amazon, but—typical of Welles’ output—the only readily available new DVD is a Brazilian edition that I was tipped off about by Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg, a fellow enthusiast for the film. He says if you ignore the Portuguese subtitles, the English soundtrack, badly synched as it is, will still leave you astonished and deeply moved. So here’s my plea: Could somebody somehow get a remastered version of this masterpiece to market? Without the Portuguese subtitles?
A version of this article also appears in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section.