- Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson: New Directions in Biography
At any time, this would have been a very good book indeed, but its appearance is particularly appropriate at this juncture, as the past few decades have seen both an obsession with the notion of 'the Death of the Author' and a strong increase of interest in biographical writing. It is not as though one can say that the latter is necessarily a straightforward academic reversal of the former. As Alan H. Nelson points out: 'We live in a time of renewed biographical interest in Shakespeare, if not among English department faculties, then certainly in the public at large' (p. 55). While perhaps academia might have changed course on its own steam, it [End Page 152] is conceivable that the outside world has provided at the very least some much-needed help. And the much saner, less theory-driven intellectual climate that now in general is coming to pervade 'English' departments owes much to the fact that ideas which should never have been adopted within the ivory tower have come to look increasingly absurd in the light of what has been happening outside it, for better or worse.
It is a sobering thought that Roland Barthes's piece 'La mort de l'auteur' was first published as early as 1968, that the English-speaking academic world was slow to undergo its influence, and then made it a fashionable notion until only quite recently. Anyone who needs to be persuaded that Barthes's views on the matter of authorship are unsound will find it helpful and illuminating to read Chapter 3, by John Carey, which raises the question: 'Is the Author Dead?' (p. 43). In contrast to many scholars who had never read W.K. Wimsatt's and Monroe Beardsley's 'The Intentional Fallacy', first published in 1946, Carey realises that much of what Barthes had to say had already been forestalled in this essay, which questioned the extent to which it is useful or valid for a literary critic, when interpreting a text, to call on knowledge of, or speculate about, the mind (or experience) of the author 'outside' the literary work he or she produced. As Carey makes plain, Wimsatt and Beardsley, though in some ways seriously at fault, are nevertheless a great deal more responsible and sensible than Barthes. In fact, I still find Wimsatt and Beardsley sufficiently impressive to be able to feel that perhaps the current zeal for biography runs the risk of encouraging the view (even if unintentionally) that somehow if only we knew much more about Shakespeare as a person we would inevitably 'understand' him better. Personally I think that of all authors Shakespeare is so naturally evasive in the way he writes that we might well see too much of the author in his work if we knew more about his life ('Ah, now we know that Shakespeare was a Catholic, so we'll read his texts as embodying a particular theological view', etc.)
I add immediately that this book is the product of superb, sober, and questioning scholarship, and that it is not guilty of ever turning any literary work into something simpler than it is. On the contrary, the authors are very aware of the complexity of the interrelationship between authors and their literary texts, and are always highly cautious in coming to any conclusions about biographical matters per se. I think we can all agree that, whatever the exact nature of the relationship between authors and their works, it may be at least potentially important, and that it is certainly of interest to know as much as we can about people who, however little or much of themselves they put into their creative writings, must have had [End Page 153] remarkable minds.
The essays derive, in some cases indirectly, from a conference of Warwick University's Centre for the Study of the Renaissance held in 2001, J. R. Mulryne tells us, who proceeds to write an introduction which is a model of...