Books: Insomnia and the curse of the Bard's biographers

William Shakespeare: His Life and Work by Anthony Holden Little, Brown pounds 20
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In Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, beneath the cartoon bust of the Bard that makes him look (as Anthony Burgess observed) like a "self-satisfied pork-butcher", lie the mortal remains of the Man of the Millennium. The epitaph reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, / To digg the dust enclosed heare: / Bleste be ye man that spares these stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones." At least Shakespeare's biographers can't say that they weren't warned. His curse has fallen on every attempt to breathe life back into those bones, and this latest stab at animating them is no exception.

The curse dooms the biographer of the Bard to shroud the fact that we know next to nothing about him in a fog of supposition. It's true that we know more about Shakespeare's life than about the life of any other writer of the day apart from Ben Jonson, but that still leaves vast tracts of ignorance for myth and conjecture to fill. Were it not for "perhaps" and "probably", to say nothing of "surely" and "might have been", the covers of this book would be a lot closer together than they are now. The truth is that the creator of Hamlet and King Lear remains an impenetrable enigma. "We ask and ask", as Matthew Arnold wrote; "Thou smilest, and art still".

Undaunted by the absence of evidence, Anthony Holden sets about roasting all the old chestnuts again. Was the glovemaker's lad gay or bisexual? Certainly not, insists Holden, sidestepping such awkward lines from the Sonnets as "thou, the master-mistress of my passion". Who was the mysterious Mr W H to whom the "sugared sonnets" were dedicated? Neither the Earl of Southampton nor the Earl of Pembroke, in Holden's view, but Shakespeare's hitherto unsuspected brother-in-law, the debt-ridden William Hathaway, who "could easily" have flogged them to the piratical printer, Thomas Thorpe, thus earning the latter's published gratitude. And the identity of the Dark Lady? George Bernard Shaw wins the cigar for fingering Jeanette Davenant, buxom wife of an Oxford innkeeper and mother of Shakespeare's alleged bastard, the future poet laureate William Davenant, as the Bard's bit on the side.

The book's chief claim to break new ground rests on its argument that Shakespeare was reared as a covert papist in dark sectarian times, and that his recusant youth left its imprint on his plays. Following the trail blazed by Ernst Honigmann in Shakespeare: The Lost Years, Holden proposes that Shakespeare spent his late teens, before he headed for London, as a tutor-cum-actor in the households of two noble Catholic families in Lancashire: the Hoghtons and the Heskeths. The fact that the entire thesis rests on the appearance of the name "William Shakeshafte" in Alexander Hoghton's will does not faze Holden in the slightest. After all, didn't Shakespeare's granddad Richard appear in local records as "Shakstaff" and "Shakeschafte", and William himself as "Shagspere" in the announcement of his marriage to "Anne Hathwey", whose real name was actually Agnes?

This vein of speculation is harmless enough, up to the point where it starts to infect Holden's account of the plays. Shakespeare's drama offers few footholds to anyone intent on unmasking his secret papist sympathies, and every reason for inferring that his view of the world was sceptical, secular and humanist to the core. Holden himself admits as much, but that doesn't stop him dragging in his pet theory by the scruff of the neck at the most implausible junctures. Thus Macbeth's piercing lament that he has murdered sleep prompts the question: "Is it entirely idle to wonder if Shakespeare himself was suffering sleepless nights while writing Macbeth? He had cause enough, as papist families of his long acquaintance went to the gallows in the wake of the `Powder Treason'." As a commentary on the plays, Holden's biography is undoubtedly Shakespeare Lite. Critical insights are as rare as duff lines in his subject's scintillating scripts. The awesome shuttling of Antony and Cleopatra between the empires of Rome and Egypt "may also mirror", we are told, in a moment of sublime bathos, "Shakespeare's own, unwonted sense of dislocation if he were riding up and down the Oxford road". And a quotation from Frank Kermode is evidently required to break the news that the same play is "rightly considered to be among Shakespeare's supreme achievements".

Towards the end of the book, Holden suddenly starts referring to "the anti-imperial theme" discernible "throughout Shakespeare's work", hailing the national icon as "the patron saint of fellow feeling" and "an egalitarian with republican instincts". That this take on the Swan of Avon hardly squares with the closet Catholic and stalwart of the "King's Men" portrayed in the preceding pages does not seem to strike Holden as a problem. But it does afford us a glimpse of the bold biography this could have been, if it had argued from the outset that the epitome of British culture was a Bolshevik all along.