Life Writing: Biographer’s Shakespeare (LSE, pre-1700)

This course would focus on
the problems and debates surrounding the biography of Shakespeare. It will also
consider biographical criticism of Shakespeare’s plays and attempts to tease
out biographical facts and interpretations from Shakespeare’s writings,
especially for sexual subtexts and political views. The activities of the anti-Stratfordians
such as Delia Bacon, who championed Sir Francis Bacon as the real author of the
plays attributed to Shakespeare, and Thomas Looney, who made the case for
Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the true author, will be examined, along
with James Shapiro’s excellent recent analysis on this phenomenon. We will also
attend to the problems connected to the biographical analysis of the sonnets.
Also some attention will go to Shakespearean forgeries, such as those of J.
Payne Collier and to the use of Shakespeare as a character for fiction.

For the analysis of
biographies, the course will consider the early lives of Shakespeare, as discussed
in Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s
(1991), including the very influential 18th-century lives
by Nicholas Rowe and Edmund Malone. We will also use the collection of the
basic facts and the accumulation of legends and theories. For modern
biographies, we will concentrate on two recent biographies, by Jonathan Bate
and James Shapiro, plus David Bevington’s recent survey, Shakespeare and Biography. Students will be asked to report on
another biography of their choice.

The goal of this course is to
investigate the various issues and pitfalls involved in writing the life of a
canonical writer about whom little is known beyond his own plays and poems. It
also will address the issues surrounding the use of Shakespeare’s plays, and
especially the sonnets, in reaching conclusions about his life. Obviously the
situation is especially critical in areas like homosexuality. In political
areas also, analysis is difficult because writers might well wish to conceal
opinions that were likely to be seen as critical of the government or the
monarch. Another area in which needs exploration involves Shakespeare’s style
as an indicator of his personality. Do patterns of diction, certain kinds of
figurative language, a love of wit suggest attributes that would legitimately
be inferred as Shakespeare’s own? Is he witty and fantastical like Mercutio or
wise and uneasy about his magical powers like Prospero? The course will
consider two plays, Hamlet and The Tempest, and the sonnets, to explore
these issues. Some readings in contemporary essays in biographical problems
that relate to the critical problems connected with Shakespeare’s life will
also be assigned.

The requirements for the
course would include a seminar paper on one of the problems of Shakespearean
biography explored in the course, a book review of a biography of Shakespeare,
and several in-class reports on issues discussed and materials assigned.

Reading List

Bate, Jonathan. Soul
of the Age

Bevington, David. Shakespeare
and Biography

Kasdan, David Scott. A
Companion to Shakespeare

Schoenbaum, Samuel. Shakespeare’s

Shapiro, James. A Year
in the Life of William Shakespeare

—-. Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet,
The Tempest,and Sonnets(Oxford texts)

Handouts for early lives, anti-Stratfordian excepts,
critical essays, etc.


ROBERT MCHENRY, Professor of English, has written critical
articles on Dryden, Pope, and Roger North, the eighteenth-century biographer
and historian. He is the editor a collection of essays on Dryden’s poetry and
another of historical materials on Absalom
and Achitophel
. He also edited the essays of Thomas Fujimura, The Temper of John Dryden. His interests
include the relations of literature to the visual arts and music, the city of
London and literary urbanism, Shakespeare, and the adaptations and criticism of
Shakespeare from 1660 to the present, including film. He is working on an
analysis of Dryden’s relationship to Shakespeare and in the context of the rise
of bardolatry.