Massive biography of the Bard creates as many myths as it debunks.
Any who harbor doubts as to creativity’s vital role in scholarly work need look no further than here. Weis (English/University College, London; The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars, 2001, etc.) uncorks great casks of knowledge about Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s oeuvre to animate the Bard’s rich life and times. To reconstruct—some would say, construct—this life about which so little is known, he sets biographical criticism on its ear by attempting to exhume otherwise hidden events in Shakespeare’s life from his work, while simultaneously using known historical occurrences to inform critical readings of the texts. “The plays and poems contain important clues to Shakespeare’s inner life and to real, tangible, external events he experienced,” Weis writes. “There is a cumulative amount of circumstantial evidence that demonstrates beyond doubt that Shakespeare responded in his work to key events of his life….to disembody the plays and poems from the life of their author is as counterintuitive as seeking to separate him from the national history of his era.” The author’s impassioned investigations lead him to advance all kinds of qualified theories, often preceded by the words ‘might,’ ‘may have,’ ‘probably,’ ‘almost certainly,’ ‘must have,’ etc. For instance: The sonnets’ fair youth, dark lady and rival poet were, respectively, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton; Emilia Bassano, daughter of a court musician; and Christopher Marlowe, with whom Shakespeare may have had a physical relationship. Also: The glover’s son from Stratford was a poacher, father of dramatist William Davenant and, perhaps most intriguingly, lame. (The possible causes of his limp occupy nearly an entire chapter.) Alongside these speculative conclusions, Weis provides engaging historical commentary on the period.
A sure-to-be controversial bio-historical feast: Shakespeareans will devour it.