- Who Was William Shakespeare?: An Introduction to the Life and Works by Dympna Callaghan
Dympna Callaghan’s fine book, Who Was William Shakespeare?, is an unusual addition to the field but one that should find a place on the shelves and in the classrooms of Shakespeare Quarterly readers. The audience for this scholarly work is not specialists but students of Shakespeare whose curiosity about the man may lead them to seek answers. Callaghan argues that the highly charged authorship issue has caused too many scholars to avoid Shakespeare’s life altogether. By contrast, she characterizes many people’s “fascination with the authorship issue” as a “perfectly legitimate interest in the contours of Shakespeare’s life,” and she proceeds from this premise (14). What follows is never a polemical defense of Shakespeare as author: the closest she gets to that is her brief discussion of spelling and signatures in which she implicitly rejects claims about Shakespeare’s supposed ignorance. Nor is this a biography, though it refers to the most important events of Shakespeare’s life. Rather, Callaghan uses the few known biographical details as “contours” for a more nuanced cultural and historical study. The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Callaghan lays out the central issues that she will connect with the details of Shakespeare’s life: writing, religion, status, and the theater. In the second part, Callaghan uses this perspective to analyze twenty-three plays in succession through short essays of approximately 3,500 words grouped in a familiar pattern (nine comedies, six histories, six tragedies, and two romances).
The cultural history in the first part will be familiar, at least in its broad outlines, to readers of Shakespeare Quarterly, but the level of detail and the clarity of Callaghan’s writing will make her volume an excellent resource and perhaps even a useful refresher. In some cases the very obscurity of the biographical material plays perfectly into the complexity and ambiguity of the cultural history itself. Her chapter on religion, for example, turns our almost total uncertainty about Shakespeare’s personal faith into a powerful index of religious belief and practice in the sixteenth century. She reminds us that “Catholicism persisted long after the Reformation in myriad practices, among many people and in manifold structures of thought,” but she also points out that “no one living in early modern England could fail to be defined by the Elizabethan Protestant Church of Shakespeare’s time” (51). In the end, she concludes that “how freely Protestants in early modern England embraced [End Page 212] the beliefs dictated to them by their government must remain open to question” (55). Yet Callaghan is also capable of making straightforward statements such as claiming that “a renewed interest in Jews and Judaism no doubt informed Shakespeare’s decision to write The Merchant of Venice” (58).
Some of the essays in the first half of the book are tied quite closely to well-attested moments in Shakespeare’s life. The discussion of status, for example, focuses extensively on Shakespeare’s application for a coat of arms on his father’s behalf. Callaghan uses this moment as “an important clue about how to read the operations of status and hierarchy in this society” (75). Her conclusion—that we value Shakespeare more highly than his contemporaries would have—is not surprising, but it is inescapable. Other chapters diverge fairly quickly from biographical detail, as is the case when the famous “upstart crow” remark serves as a kind of epigraph for a more general description of the status of theatrical writing and of the Elizabethan stage itself. Overall, the five chapters in the first half of the book manage to make the complexity of early modern literary culture engaging in ways that speak to the value of Callaghan’s desire to pay attention to Shakespeare’s biography.
In the second half of the text, Callaghan preserves the connection to Shakespeare’s life by adding subtitles to the major categories...