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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and Biography
  • Robert McHenry (bio)
David Bevington. Shakespeare and Biography. Oxford Shakespeare Topics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 179 pp. ISBN 978-0199586479, $24.95.

If the number and scholarly weight of biographical books are any indication, then it would be difficult to exaggerate the public and academic interest in Shakespeare’s life. Beginning in the eighteenth century—unhappily not earlier when evidence from direct acquaintance might have been reported—and reaching an avalanche in the nineteenth century and ever since, biographers of Shakespeare have produced a great deal of scholarship, analysis, and speculation. Yet there is little information about the issues that readers of Shakespeare’s works, or students of biography, are apt to care about. What kind of person was he? Was he a good husband and father? What about his political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation? What did he actually look like? Who were his friends, his enemies; what were his views of poetry, drama, or his own role as a writer and producer of plays? In the long list of Shakespearean biographies, the amount of actual information about these topics is small.

And yet the avalanche continues, and as Professor Bevington makes clear in his survey of the field, there is rich insight and impressive variety in the array of attempts to fill in useful and new aspects of Shakespeare’s portrait. Bevington seeks to “study the art of Shakespearean biography: its fascinations, [End Page 334] its changing preoccupations, and above all the challenges the biographers face in writing about a hugely gifted author who chose not to talk about himself ” (Preface). The approach is partly a survey, a sort of modern updating of Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives (1970, rev. 1992), but organized primarily by topics. Whereas Schoenbaum provided an historical analysis of all the lives from the beginnings to his own time, Bevington concentrates on describing the varieties of conclusions on several recurring topics, those enduring mysteries, as they are treated in the most recent biographical works, mostly from the last ten years.

In his opening chapter, Bevington elegantly lays out the problems facing Shakespeare’s biographers while indicating some of the contributions in recent books to our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and his time. He also introduces the issue of speculation as a means of filling in gaps in the narrative of Shakespeare’s life while commenting on some of the fictional treatments of that life—efforts to produce a satisfactory narrative not bound by the limits of our factual knowledge. The fictional accounts, such as Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Son (1964), make it clear that for many writers intrigued by Shakespeare’s genius, his silence about many of the central areas of his thought and values “positively invites speculation” (13). Indeed it does, but can it be justified in a biography? Bevington sensibly recommends caution, and his own approach to the various biographical theories and speculations is notably cautious, though the foundations of his caution are not always clear.

In the following chapter, he expertly charts the beginnings of Shakespearean life writing, especially the comments printed during his life, such as Robert Greene’s satiric thrust of 1592, Ben Jonson’s influential paean that appeared in the First Folio (1623), and the pioneering if sometimes unreliable work of his first biographers, John Aubrey and Nicholas Rowe, who provided enjoyable but ill-supported tales of Shakespeare’s early life. Bevington emphasizes the early tendency to idealize Shakespeare, and while he notes that one must be “wary” of that impulse, he finds it “comforting to realize that many people have wanted to think of him as not only a great writer but a splendid person” (28). It is a form of comfort familiar to those in the grip of Bardolatry, but it is dangerous for a biographer who strives for impartiality and accuracy. The natural sympathy that a good biographer usually feels for his or her subject can be extended to the point of extravagance in the overheated world of Bardolatry. Bevington recognizes this trap, but he is only mildly judgmental. His book, a useful survey, does little to teach about discriminating between views that deserve wariness and...