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  • The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography by Lois Potter
  • David Riggs (bio)
The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography. By Lois Potter. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Illus. Pp. xii + 498. $103.95 cloth, $34.95 paper.

The originality of Lois Potter’s new biography lies in her sweeping and meticulously detailed portrait of Shakespeare’s literary and theatrical milieu. She states at the outset that “the only Shakespeare I can imagine is one whose imaginative life was fed essentially by words” (vii), and that is who she gives us. This approach has yielded impressive results in the recent, pathbreaking work of Katherine Duncan-Jones, whom Potter mentions several times, and MacDonald P. Jackson. Where Duncan-Jones and Jackson focus on case studies that invite intertextual analysis (such as Jackson’s microscopic contextualization of the Shakespeare allusions in Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia), Potter’s encyclopedic study undertakes nothing less than a fully continuous, cradle-to-grave life of Shakespeare.

At times, her biography resembles a life-sized echo chamber wherein “words . . . spring from the memory of other words” (vii). Since verbal reminiscences are slippery commodities, navigating the echo chamber can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Jackson gets around this problem by using computerized databases to regulate the supply of pertinent words. Potter prefers to hedge her bets in the subjunctive mood. “It is tempting to think,” Potter muses, “that a revised Twelfth Night manuscript was fetched at the last moment from Stratford, since this play . . . feels exceptionally ‘finished’” (417). She observes,

The name Orsino has been linked to the official visit of Don Virginio Orsini to Elizabeth’s court in 1601, and the performance of a play before him on 6 January (Twelfth Night). One argument against this connection is the fact that the visiting [End Page 378] duke would hardly have been flattered to see his name used for a lovesick count. In revision, however, Shakespeare might have introduced the name as a reminiscence of the 1601 performance. . . . He might have been reminded of the Orsini visit because Webster made Orsini’s ancestor, Paulo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, a central character in The White Devil, published in 1612.


The undeniable appeal of this account resides in the erudite array of circumstantial evidence that Potter brings to bear on Shakespeare’s choice of the name “Orsino.” Yet the very intricacy of her chain of contingencies (the initial link, the performance on Twelfth Night, the duke’s supposed feelings, the single occurrence of the word “Orsini” in Webster’s play, the last-minute revisions in Stratford) diminishes the likelihood that Shakespeare actually did arrive at the name via the route that Potter describes. This kind of trade-off is a recurrent feature of her Life: the erudition of the commentary, while admirable in its own right, blunts the cutting edge of her narrative.

Potter’s Shakespeare is marvelously sensitive to the written and the spoken word. He engages the work of his contemporaries to an extent that has escaped the attention of previous biographers. While creating the character of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he notices the lost and anonymous Palamon and Arcite performed by the Admiral’s Men in September 1594. He borrows words and ideas from Basilisco, the braggart warrior in Soliman and Perseda, attributed to Thomas Kyd, for his portrayals of Falconbridge and Falstaff. He draws upon the 1596 edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which he could have found at his countryman Richard Field’s bookshop, for the topical allegory in Love’s Labor’s Lost. The seemingly innocuous banter in Twelfth Night about “heresy,” “‘divinity,’” and “sticking to a text” that has been licensed by authority harbors “sophisticated” and “daring” allusions to the “frightening investigation of heresy and atheism in Marlowe and Kyd” (291–92). His sonnets are in dialogue with manuscript poems that would be published under the name of John Donne in 1633. “If Donne’s dramatic tone is the result of his theatergoing, Shakespeare’s increasing lyricism may have been affected by Donne’s ‘strong lines’ (difficult images, impossible hyperboles, riddles, and paradoxes) and his religious eroticism”: witness the overlap of...


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pp. 378-380
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