Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into The Intro: Toward a New Shakespeare Biography

William Shakespeare. Photo: Elliott Brown via Creative Commons.

Photo: Elliott Brown via Creative Commons.

Shakespeare biography hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years.

With few exceptions, those who write about his life continue to obsess over a handful of issues that have little to do with what or how he wrote – from his sexual inclinations to his pursuit of status to his decision to leave his wife a ‘second best’ bed.

Because most of his biographers accept as a matter of faith the Wordsworthian notion that ‘the child is father of the man,’ a disproportionate amount of attention has also been devoted to finding in Shakespeare’s early and ‘lost’ years – rather than, say, the first few years of his writing and acting career in London – the key to what made Shakespeare Shakespeare.

Over time, the emphasis has changed, though the premise that his early years were crucial has not: Shakespeare the poacher, butcher’s apprentice, soldier, lawyer’s clerk and schoolteacher have all had their day and are currently supplanted by Shakespeare the crypto-Catholic.

Given the absence of hard evidence to support such claims, the biographer’s search has usually begun not in the archives but in the plays themselves, which are ransacked for clues that can be read back into anecdotal accounts of his early years (and since the plays contain a vast range of experiences, this is not as hard to do as it may sound). Unless one believes that the plays are two-way mirrors, it is difficult not to conclude that this approach is ultimately circular and arbitrary.

Traditional cradle-to-grave biographies of Shakespeare also share the unspoken assumption that what makes people who they are now also made people who they were back then. I’m not so sure. Because almost nobody thought to write a memoir or keep a personal diary in Shakespeare’s day – revealing enough facts in themselves – we don’t know whether the emotional lives of early modern English men and women were like ours. Their formative years certainly weren’t.

Childhood was brief, and adolescents, rich and poor, were sent from home to live and serve in other households. Plague, death in childbirth, harvest-failures and high infant-mortality rates may have diminished the intensity of family bonds. And these bonds didn’t last as long: people lived, on the average, until their mid-forties (only one of Shakespeare’s seven brothers and sisters made it past forty-six). Eldest sons like Shakespeare inherited all, creating friction among siblings.

Though life was shorter, most Elizabethans delayed marriage until their mid-twenties (and a surprising proportion, including Shakespeare’s three brothers, never married at all). Given the extremely low illegitimacy rates at the time, premarital desire must have either been sublimated or found an outlet in non-procreative sex – perhaps both. Even the meaning of such concepts
as individuality was different. Writers, including Shakespeare, were only beginning to speak of ‘individual’ in the modern sense of ‘distinctive’ or ‘special’, the exact opposite of what it had long meant, ‘inseparable’. This was also an age of faith, or at the least one in which church attendance was mandatory; religion, too played a greater role in shaping how life, death and the afterlife were imagined.1

All this suggests that, as much as we might want Shakespeare to have been like us, he wasn’t.

We call this period early modern or pre-modern for good reason. We know all this, yet collectively remain reluctant to ask whether the time has come to abandon the questionable assumptions and stale conventions that govern the writing of Shakespeare’s life. It didn’t have to turn out this way – and probably wouldn’t have if Thomas Heywood’s ambitious Jacobean ‘Lives of All the Poets Modern and Foreign’ had not vanished without a trace 2 or if seventeenth-century antiquarians like John Ward bothered to speak with Shakespeare’s younger daughter, Judith, who was still alive after the
Restoration (Ward made a note to contact her in 1662 but she died before he managed to do so and, with her, a direct and intimate sense of the kind of man Shakespeare was and how he spent his time).3

A few more facts – or even anecdotes that weren’t so obviously second or thirdhand – might have put the lie to current, often
wild, speculation about how Shakespeare became Shakespeare.

Unfairly or not, I blame John Heminges and Henry Condell for the ossified state of Shakespeare biography and for the difficulties we now face in accounting for Shakespeare’s development as a writer.

Having spent most of their adult lives performing in Shakespeare’s plays they knew the sequence in which all but the earliest plays had been written. But when they put together the 1623 Folio they abandoned the chronological order of their model, Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio, choosing instead to shoehorn Shakespeare’s plays into the categories of Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (which made for a very uncomfortable fit for ‘tragedies’ like Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida).

Even within these categories they ignored the order in which the plays were written, so that, for instance, The Tempest is the lead comedy in the First Folio. And, unlike Jonson, they made no mention of where and by whom each play had been performed. Heminges and Condell’s decision to take Shakespeare out of time and place made it much easier for subsequent critics to conclude, as Coleridge did, that a transcendent Shakespeare wrote ‘exactly as if of another planet’.4 Some of the most popular one-volume editions of Shakespeare’s works still organize the works by genre, and most of us, in our teaching, are more likely to speak of Henry V as part of an historical tetralogy that began four years earlier with Richard II, than we are to emphasize its connections to plays like Julius Caesar or As You Like It, written at much the same time, with which it shares a different set of preoccupations.

Shakespeare himself seems to have taken for granted that ‘the purpose of playing’ was to show, as Hamlet put it, ‘the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’ (3.2.20–4). But to see how Shakespeare’s plays managed to do so depends upon knowing when each one was written.

And with the deaths of Richard BurbageThomas Pope, Heminges and Condell, that knowledge too disappeared. Over a century and a half passed before Edmond Malone tried to tackle the question of Shakespeare’s development in his ‘Attempt to Ascertain the Order in Which the Plays of Shakespeare were Written’. Few were more steeped in Shakespeare scholarship than Malone, and yet the best that he could initially determine was that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1596 and Henry VIII in 1601, that The Winter’s Tale (1604) preceded Lear (1605), while Julius Caesar (1607) followed both Cymbeline (1605) and Macbeth (1606).

Malone’s Shakespeare ended his career with a curious trio of plays: Othello (1611), The Tempest (1612) and Twelfth Night (1614).5 It comes as no surprise that he made so little headway in linking the plays more securely to their times. Two centuries
later we are still unsure of the exact order of the plays, especially the earliest ones. And for all that has been written about Shakespeare,we remain almost as far as ever from answering the question of how, in the course of a year or so, the author of
competent but unspectacular plays like Much Ado and The Merry Wives of Windsor, went on to write Hamlet.

We need alternative approaches to writing Shakespeare’s life and in the past few years we’ve begun to see a few that in important ways break with convention, such as Katherine Duncan-Jones’s emphasis on scenes from his life.6 I’d like to propose another approach, an experiment that risks a different kind of arbitrariness and circularity but that at least has the advantage of making use of a great deal of information that is currently overlooked. I’m urging that we begin writing partial or micro-biographies that focus intensely on specific years (or even shorter periods) of Shakespeare’s creative life.7

These studies would ignore Shakespeare’s early and retirement years and focus exclusively on the years that matter most, the quarter-century in which he wrote and acted. Because biographers are led by convention to take us from birth to death and beyond, these years are almost always given short shrift.

Any biography that devotes to each of these years more than twenty pages or so would quickly swell to an unpublishable length. Yet a period like 1595–6, when Shakespeare wrote, at the least, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV and probably some sonnets as well, or 1605–1606, when Shakespeare appears to have written Macbeth, Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, deserve considerably more attention than biographers traditionally have given them.8

Other years, especially early on his career, cry out for more patient unpacking of what Shakespeare read, wrote and acted in, the circles he moved in, the places he is recorded to have visited either in London or on tour, and, most of all, his engagement in what was going on in the world around him that shaped his plays and poems.

Such an approach could begin to address questions that biographers habitually sidestep: did Shakespeare come to London as an aspiring poet seeking patronage, as an actor, or as a hopeful playwright? Did he write plays in inspired bunches or contract with his playing company for a couple of plays a year? Were there relatively fallow periods in his career, such as the years between
the completion of Hamlet and the accession of the King of Scots? How did the nature of his collaboration with other dramatists change over time? What do changes in his writing style – from metrics and rhetorical figures like hendiadys to his use of prose and of soliloquy – reveal? And to what extent did his plays engage topical concerns and did the nature of this engagement change over time?

I suspect that scholars, freed of existing teleologies of Shakespeare’s development and focusing on different moments in his career, would arrive at markedly different answers to these questions – and there would be, for the first time in a while, a basis for constructive debate about the contours of Shakespeare’s writing life.


You can read the full chapter by James Shapiro, taken from Shakespeare Survey 58 (2005), edited by Peter Holland. You can also check out our Shakespeare400 anniversary campaign for more free content.


  1. The literature on early modern social history is vast. See, for example, Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450–1700 (London, 1984); J. A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: A Social History, 1550–1760 (1987; 2nd edn, London, 1997); Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge, 1987); and David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997).
  2. See S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives, new edn (Oxford, 1991), p. 83. Heywood’s book was mentioned in 1614 and
    again in 1635.
  3. See E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1930), vol. 2, pp. 249–50.
  4. As cited in C. J. Sisson, The Mythical Sorrow of Shakespeare. Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy, 1934.
    From the Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 20 (London, 1934), p. 6.
  5. Malone’s essay was first published in 1778. I have consulted a reprint of it in Edmond Malone, ed., The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, 16 vols. (Dublin, 1794), vol. 1, pp. 225–6.
  6. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life (London, 2001).
  7. I am indebted here to Simon Jarvis, who first argued in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement (in a review of Claire
    Harman’s biography of Fanny Burney, 10 June 1999) against the ‘deadening convention’ of ‘total’ biography, in favour of
    ‘partial lives’. For Jarvis, cradle-to-grave biography is ‘a genre which has become quiescent to the point (if we can hope for
    so much) of its demise’.
  8. Though for the latter group of plays, see the instructive discussion in Leeds Barroll, Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theatre: The Stuart Years (Ithaca, NY, 1991).

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