- Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan, 1592–1623 by Katherine Duncan-Jones
I learned a great deal from Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Ungentle Shakespeare (2001, more recently in paperback as Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life, 2010). I have disagreed, as have others, with some speculations in it, but on the whole it offers a much needed and healthy corrective to the venerable practice of deifying Shakespeare as a person as well as a superb writer, as though his being the world’s greatest dramatist could ensure his being personally as wise and generous as some of the characters he creates. We all know that this way of imputing qualities in an author’s work to his own life is unreliable: Hemingway, Frost, Faulkner, and Tolstoy, to name but four, have been shown by their biographers to have feet of clay. Shakespeare is a special case, not only because of his towering status as a writer but because he has left us in writing virtually nothing about himself. In the absence of personal testimony, admirers of Shakespeare have fallen back on testimonials about him such as Henry Chettle’s handsome tribute in 1592 presumably about Shakespeare (though the name does not appear) as a man of civil demeanor and reportedly of “‘uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty’” (44). Katherine Duncan-Jones begs to differ.
Her project in this present book runs along similar lines of reassessing the man Shakespeare, with an emphasis now on the transformations that occur in his reputation during his lifetime and afterwards, mainly while he was still alive. As Duncan-Jones shows us, the range and shift of opinion is truly remarkable, from Henry Chettle’s snub of an “‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’” (39) in 1592 (disguised by Chettle as an attack by Robert Greene) to the “‘Sweet Swan of Avon’” (233) celebrated in Ben Jonson’s commemorative poem in the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. To be sure, Chettle’s envious quip was quickly qualified and refuted by Chettle’s apology, so that even from the start of Shakespeare’s career in London we hear from those who spoke well of him, but the extremes of waspish criticism and adulation are still an essential part of the record, to be analyzed. This is what Duncan-Jones does with flair and with impressive credentials as a no-nonsense biographer and critic. Her approach is as unreverential as in Ungentle Shakespeare, and it is one that affords her opportunities for many striking revelations and suggestions. Because many scholars have written on the relationship between Shakespeare and Jonson, Duncan-Jones wisely devotes her attention mainly to [End Page 372] Shakespeare’s interactions with such persons as “Chettle, John Weever, Francis Meres and George Chapman” (x).
One revisionary idea in this book addresses the familiar question, How did it come about that Shakespeare somehow garnered the reputation as a “kill-cow” (1) in his youth, as evidenced in John Aubrey’s account of the boy Shakespeare who, in the process of killing a calf, “‘would doe it in a high style’” (2)? Duncan-Jones suggests a new explanation: perhaps Shakespeare’s godfather was a Stratford butcher. John Aubrey’s characterization of Shakespeare’s actual father, John, as “‘a Butcher’” (2) has long been dismissed as a misrepresentation; John was a merchant who dealt in hides, leather goods, grain, and the like. But why discard the idea of butchery, especially when a parallel account by a lawyer named John Dowdall in 1693 asserts that Shakespeare was for time “‘bound apprentice to a butcher’” (2) in Stratford-upon-Avon, and that Shakespeare thereupon deserted his apprenticeship to make his way to London, where he “was ‘Received ynto the play house as a serviture’” (2)? The terms “father” and “godfather” were easily elided in early modern English. Might Stratford butcher William Tyler have officiated as godfather to the newborn son of his friend and neighbor, John Shakespeare? William’s son Richard is...