SHAKESPEARE: A LIFE By Park Honan Oxford University Press 460 pp., $30
THE LATE MR. SHAKESPEARE By Robert Nye Arcade Publishing 400 pp., $25.95
Now that we know so much about Shakespeare in love, we may yearn to learn the rest of the story. A new biography, Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life, and Robert Nye's novel, The Late Mr. Shakespeare, provide abundant factual details of the Bard's life and times. Both are intended for the non- specialist.
Honan has taught, researched, and written about Shakespeare for 35 years, and devoted 10 years to writing this biography, using "every known source for his life." This is the first major Shakespeare biography since Schoenbaum's definitive "Documentary Life" (1975).
Honan skillfully interweaves the known facts of Shakespeare's life and many incidental historical details with the most accurate knowledge we have of the writing and performance of the plays. His inferences and suppositions about his subject are carefully reasoned and deeply documented.
"Shakespeare: A Life" accounts for the Bard's extraordinary range of knowledge and language from his excellent training at the King's New School at Stratford, taught by Oxford scholars; his exposure to dramatic performances by traveling companies; and his ready access to books. Shakespeare's progress as hireling, actor, playwright, and part owner of a theater company is traced in sufficient detail to give the reader an appreciation of the rigors, risks, and vicissitudes of this profession in Elizabethan times.
Honan connects to the plays and poems some of Shakespeare's personal experiences. "The most tangled and contradictory of his relationships, one suspects, was always with his mother. His troubled attitudes to women are too deep to be of anything but early origin." The death of his son, Hamnet, in 1596, Honan believes, was a tragedy from which the playwright never recovered and may have referred to in his Sonnet 37. And the complicated relations of fathers and daughters in "Romeo and Juliet," "Othello," and "King Lear," for example, may have owed their complexity to Shakespeare's dealings with his own daughters.
Shakespeare lived and wrote at an exceptionally fortunate time. "London helped Shakespeare to offer the most profound, demanding plays ever given to any city," Honan writes. "His dramas are inexhaustibly fertile in stimulating new ideas and interpretations - and that they have the power to transform the lives of play-goers and readers testifies not to a 'miracle' but to unique qualities of his artistry and intellect.... His curiosity about human nature was in a sense remorseless, though it never outran his sympathy for the human predicament."
Nye's "The Late Mr. Shakespeare" is not really a novel. Rather, it is a rambling reminiscence by an old former boy actor who refers to himself as Pickleherring. Writing in 1666, at the beginning of the Great Fire that destroyed much of London, this fictional narrator recalls many of his personal contacts with Shakespeare.
"When I seek to find an emblem for the heart of William Shakespeare the image that comes most readily and indelibly to mind is a snow-gentled hawthorn. There was always something sharp at the core of his sweetness. Yet he was, as even Ben Jonson admitted, a very lovable spirit; and indeed, he was honest, and of an open and free nature."
Nye supplies ample factual evidence and fictional conjectures about Shakespeare's years as a school teacher in Lancashire and a lawyer's assistant in London, and about his travels at sea and in warfare. Fact and fiction are mingled indiscriminately, though usually with some provisos.
The tone of Pickleherring's discourse is folksy, chatty, and direct. But with depressing frequency, he lapses into the coarse, vulgar, and even pornographic. Notwithstanding these failings, his scholarly knowledge is wide and his range of (unattributed) allusion is impressive.
Despite its unpleasant features, "The Late Mr. Shakespeare" does credit to its subject. Pickleherring understands the achievement of the playwright: "It is easy to clothe imaginary beings with our own thoughts and feelings. But to send ourselves out of ourselves, to think ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of beings in circumstances wholly and strangely different from our own, and yet make those beings remind us of us all - hoc labor, hoc opus! Who has achieved it? Only Shakespeare."
*Norman A. Anderson is a retired Shakespeare professor in St. Louis.