Books: A little more than kin

Do we care if the Swan of Avon had mother trouble? Peter Holland on facts behind the acts
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Shakespeare: a life

by Park Honan

Oxford University Press, pounds 25, 450pp

Ben Jonson couldn't see the point of looking at pictures of Shakespeare. You might get a good likeness, but no artist stood a chance of drawing the wit. And so, "reader, look/ Not on his picture but his book". If that was good advice for people looking at the great dome of the egghead on the title page of the First Folio, it might be a warning for people reading a biography as well, even one as good as Park Honan's.

After all, what is a Shakespeare biography for? Nicholas Rowe, who wrote the first in 1709, knew that there were already some people who thought they were a waste of time because "the works of Mr Shakespeare may seem to many not to want a comment"; but he still put forward the traditional argument that "the knowledge of an author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his book".

Park Honan has all the advantages of the latest research - his and others' - on various dusty documents, and his own immense experience of writing biographies of other authors such as Jane Austen and Matthew Arnold. But I do not think there is a single moment in his whole book which "conduced" to my better understanding Shakespeare's "book". What Honan does manage is rather unfashionable and surprising. He makes of the works a way of understanding the man. Usually cautiously, though occasionally outrageously, Honan tries to see what the plays and poems might reveal about the man from Stratford.

If Stratford's flagging tourist industry were capable of being boosted by a biography, then Honan should end up with the Freedom of the Borough. For his Shakespeare is very much the "man from Stratford". The town bustles back into life and its citizens take on palpable existence under Honan's watchful eye. Their wills and bonds, court records and council orders, provide tiny nuggets not only of fact but also of implication.

When Thomas Whittington, once shepherd to Richard Hathaway, Anne's father, left to "the poor people of Stratford" 40 shillings "that is in the hand of Anne Shakespeare", Honan uses the bequest to build up an image of Anne as a woman who can be trusted to look after the shepherd's money. When Shakespeare bought New Place in 1597, the great house in Stratford, Honan makes much of its blood-boltered past.

One previous owner had poisoned his daughter in 1563, and another would be poisoned by his son two months after the sale to Shakespeare, sufficient for Honan to argue that such events "familiarised" Shakespeare "with the raw, primitive theme of family murder". The two murderers, William Bott and Fulke Underhill, become another trace of the materials out of which Shakespeare fashioned Hamlet.

Bookish scholars have worked hard for centuries to make Shakespeare as book-bound as themselves. Honan creates for us a Shakespeare who feeds off his life and the experiences of Stratford's community.

Sometimes, the attempts push at the limits of credibility. The great mystery of why Shakespeare's Sonnets, which were almost certainly written in the 1590s, should unexpectedly get published in 1609 now has a new solution: Shakespeare waited until after the death of his beloved mother in 1608 so that she would not be upset by the poems' revelations.

That serves as a triumphal conclusion to the relationship that for Honan mattered most in Shakespeare's life. The baby William was, apparently, devotedly looked after by his mother as the plague raged in Stratford - a sheer guess about how mothers might have reacted to plague in a society with high infant mortality. I suppose it could be said of almost any man that "the most tangled and contradictory of his relationships was always with his mother".

Honan has to put in a defensive "one suspects", since he has only his own inferences on which to base the argument. But he follows it with a statement that tries to face both ways at that complex juncture between life and writing: "his troubled attitudes to women are too deep to be of anything but early origin".

I guess that Honan means that the plays show these "troubled attitudes" in profusion, because there is precious little evidence of them elsewhere, apart from that enigmatic bequest to Anne of the second-best bed. But the whole idea rests on two very arguable assumptions: that the plays show troubled attitudes to women, and that those attitudes are Shakespeare's own.

If Honan's attempts to lie Shakespeare down on a psychoanalytic couch don't ring true, this is a small price to pay for the excellence elsewhere. The assertive way in which Honan tries to probe Shakespeare's mind sits oddly beside his usual careful hesitancy.

Nicholas Rowe had so few facts at his disposal in 1709 that he could pretty much say what he liked. Park Honan has so many more that he needs to be more wary. But, at his best, Honan looks again at the evidence and comes up with convincing new solutions.

He is especially cautious, though, when he charts an "alternative narrative" for those lost years in the 1580s. He sets out the option that Shakespeare was the "William Shakeshaft" who worked as a schoolteacher with the Catholic family at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire. It is a neat theory, and the circumstantial evidence for it is building all the time. But we will never know the answer.

For Rowe, "some little account of the man himself" seemed a proper accompaniment to his edition of the plays. Park Honan never quite decides whether the plays ought to be the accompaniment to his fairly large biography. But, whichever way round the two should go, is the very best biography around of the man himself. It is a convincing demonstration of how much can be recovered of an individual's life, and of how little can be known of his thoughts.

Professor Peter Holland is Director of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham