The Man Shakespeare


For background material used in writing this review I am indebted to Shakespeare's Lives by the late Professor S. Schoenbaum, an inestimable history of Shakespeare biography, with a brief chapter devoted to Harris' efforts. Schoenbaum was not terribly impressed by Harris but grudgingly conceded that he was at least a more entertaining writer than most.

Shakespeare biography is a difficult and fraught area: there is little real documentation of the life and most of it is disappointingly mundane, leading many biographers to fill in the gaps with speculation disguised as fact, so for instance the assertion that Shakespeare poached deer is commonly presented as a definite or probable truth, when there is no evidence other than hearsay that he did any such thing.

The works also present a number of interesting problems, including that of how much of Shakespeare' text is actually his own - none, according to some of the wilder theories that are promulgated - and whether hidden references to his own life and times are to be found in the plays. Turning to the Sonnets, where it is reasonable to believe that he would more directly use material from his own life, there are four mysterious individuals to be identified: the dedicatee 'Mr W.H.' and - in the poems themselves - the 'Fair Youth', the 'Dark Lady', and the 'Rival Poet'.

Harris' thesis has two strands, the first being that Shakespeare had the habit of depicting himself in his characters, including those as various as Hamlet, Macbeth or Posthumus from Cymbeline. In this way he builds up a picture of a gentle, amorous, music-loving bard who suffers from a poor constitution, is prone to melancholy and - like Cassio in Othello - cannot hold his liquor.

His other main idea is the identification of the Dark Lady as one Mary Fitton, a Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth I, and both Mr W.H. and the Fair Youth as William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (this theory was originated by Thomas Tyler and also taken up by Bernard Shaw for his play The Dark Lady of the Sonnets). The Rival Poet is Chapman, the adaptor of Homer. These ideas are combined to give us a Shakespeare whose life is an unhappy love story: mismarried to Anne Hathaway, he runs away to London to seek his fortune as an actor and playwright, there he falls in love with Mary Fitton but his friend Herbert who he has asked to act as go-between steals her away from him instead; thenceforward he is continually tormented by his love for this flighty and capricious woman; at the end of his life he returns to Stratford (and his wife and children) where he dies a successful but still broken-hearted man.

This is the story Shakespeare tells us through his plays and poems, Harris says, for example portraying Mary Fitton as Cleopatra and Cressida, Herbert as Coriolanus and Proteus, from the Two Gentlemen of Verona.

There are a number of problems with all this, including the fact that we know from two paintings of her that Mary Fitton had hair that was brown, not raven-black as the Dark Lady had; also the idea that a humble actor like Shakespeare could employ a Peer of the Realm as a go-between in a love affair is absurd; and in any case Harris' analysis of the plays as hidden portraits is simply unbelievable. (One thing he did get right was making Chapman the Rival Poet - Chapman is currently seen as the most likely candidate by scholarly opinion).

Why did Harris think Shakespeare would hide portraits of himself in the plays? This is his core mistake, for the errors he takes from Tyler are after all not his own - though he could have known that Tyler was discredited if he had bothered to keep his Shakespeare scholarship up-to-date.

Harris was a keen reader of the plays above all else, and he had increasingly come to feel that over and again he encountered the same traits in different characters, especially where they seem anomalous, as in the overlong speech where Richard II renounces his crown which Harris says is typical of Shakespeare's own melancholy.

In itself this approach of looking for oddities and mischaracterisations to gain some insight into an author's way of looking at the world is perfectly valid and potentially very interesting. But Harris took the process too far by assuming that Shakespeare would have painted himself whole and true in any of his characters. For example, as Hamlet is supposed to be fat, Harris says, Shakespeare was also; though surely it is just as likely that the part was originally played by an overweight actor.

Is there anything to be said for this book at all? At the time it was acclaimed by many for its image of Shakespeare as a real, living, fallible human being rather than a demigod - some previous biographers had ignored the Sonnets altogether or treated them as poetic 'exercises' because the passions they exhibit do not fit with the picture of Saint Shakespeare. And some of Harris' criticism is original and thought-provoking, even if often wide of the mark: as ever he is against the prevailing wisdom. For example he describes Henry V's speech that starts "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" as the 'make-believe of valour, the completest proof that valour was absent', evidence of Shakespeare's inability to portray a believable soldier-king.

Harris - and he was not alone in this opinion - thought this book would be the one that would outlast him, but it is now justly forgotten. It was a monumental folly, built by Harris' egomania and ambition, but there is a certain nobility in it: he was not perpetrating a fraud but telling what was for him an important truth. He wanted to reclaim Shakespeare from 'dryasdust' professors and mindless venerators, and make him a believable man, surely a laudable aim even if he fell short in his undertaking.

You may also want to read some contemporary quotes about this book.

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