- The Truth about William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies by David Ellis, and: Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon by Julia Thomas
Wittily and entertainingly developed, the underlying theme in David Ellis’s The Truth about William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies is the impossibility of writing a biography of Shakespeare, as the word is normally defined, due to sheer lack of material. While Shakespeare’s published work stands as a permanent memorial to his genius, surviving biographical evidence is so fragmentary that at almost no point can we say with confidence how he spent his days, what his friends and acquaintances thought he was like (and what he thought of them), and what his personal views on contemporary issues were. Moreover, the small corpus of material that does exist to chronicle his life has barely been added to since the 1909 discovery of papers recording Shakespeare’s involvement in the Bellott-Mountjoy case. There is nothing new in such observations, of course, but Ellis has chosen to remind us of these limitations now, in the wake of the recent plethora of Shakespeare biographies which have appeared on an almost annual basis since the late 1990s, each advertised as throwing new light on the poet’s life.
Ellis disputes such claims, however, arguing that the only way of improving on the fixed and narrow base of historical fact is to turn to surmise derived from posthumous anecdotal sources or Shakespeare’s literary output or, at worst, to indulge in flights of fancy based on no real evidence at all. While some of these biographies might be said to fall into the “popular” bracket, others are the work of established academics who, Ellis contends, one would expect to observe the basic rules of historical investigation when undertaking a historical biography. He recognizes the value of recent attempts to place Shakespeare “in his times” on the accepted principle that we will only be able properly to understand Shakespeare’s responses and reactions to contemporary events in the context of the society in which he lived and of the people with whom he worked and played. But as Ellis reminds us, even the best studies have not added directly to our knowledge of Shakespeare’s interaction with his surroundings, serving instead as background for the life of a man who obstinately fails to put in a meaningful appearance, and obliging [End Page 375] biographers intent on offering new insight to enter into the world of assumption and speculation. Such interpretations may be thought provoking but, in Ellis’s view, are clearly not the stuff of true biography.
Ellis approaches his subject in a generally chronological fashion, with chapters devoted to the main events in Shakespeare’s life—forebears, boyhood and youth, marriage, and the like, with diversions on such topics as “Friends,” “Politics,” and Shakespeare’s sexuality. For each, he reminds us that any attempt to go beyond what can be deduced from contemporary (and very limited) recorded fact involves the biographer in a degree of speculation, which although usually acknowledged is often subtly transformed into established fact. All this is very well and entertainingly done, and no recent biographer emerges unscathed. Indeed, the cumulative effect is sobering even for those who regard themselves as skeptical observers of current developments in Shakespeare biography. On occasion, Ellis may go a little too far. In the chapter entitled “Money,” which deals with Shakespeare’s worldly success, Ellis is reluctant to admit that the historical evidence (here, at its most abundant) can be used to interpret Shakespeare’s own feelings. His treatment of Shakespeare’s will, which many feel permits a sensible discussion of familial relationships and the personal circumstances of his acquaintances, surely imposes too rigid a straitjacket on what...