BOOK REVIEW / Too shadowy to be an enigma: Bryan Appleyard on two new books that probe the mystery of Shakespeare; 'Shakespeare: The Evidence' - Ian Wilson: Headline, 19.99 pounds and 'Shakespeare Reshaped' - Gary Taylor & John Jowett: Oxford, 40 pounds

Click to follow
THERE is something eerie about William Shakespeare. He is unchallenged as our greatest national poet; he occupies a human summit accompanied only by Mozart, Michelangelo and a handful of others. Yet Shakespeare remains a maddeningly anonymous figure. Clear details about his life are few and direct impressions of the man are almost non- existent. Any view you might form of him can always, with equal authority, be contradicted. He is a figure too shadowy even to be an enigma, too remote to be quite human.

In a short story Jorge Luis Borges resolved the mystery - at least imaginatively - by suggesting that, throughout his life, Shakespeare concealed a terrible secret. On meeting God he confessed that, in spite of his limitless ability to conjure characters from the air, he, Shakespeare, was, in fact, nobody. Don't worry, replied God, I too am everybody and nobody. God and the great artist shared one appalling deficiency.

The more literal minded, however, will require more. They will want their Shakespeare to have flesh and blood, or, at the very least, they will want him to make sense. So the tourist industry creates Shakespeare's Stratford, theatricals make free with his texts and conspiracy theorists speculate that he really was a cipher, that the plays were the secret work of Bacon, Marlowe or the Queen; the traces left by Shakespeare the man are faint because he was never more than a name attached to the work of others.

In Shakespeare: The Evidence Ian Wilson does what he can to find material consolations in this infuriating void. The evidence of the title is not, however, evidence of anything in particular: there is no authorship conspiracy, no sexual revelations, indeed, there is nothing that will rattle the windows of either the British Tourist Authority or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Instead there is a conscientious assembly of the relevant data. Wilson's 'evidence' is essentially neutral, it lays out the facts and probabilities for our assessment.

As such the book suffers from a painful lack of direction. On every page leads are traced with almost boyish enthusiasm, but, somehow, they all peter out. Certainly there are connections, undoubtedly there are reasonable speculations, but they never add up, they never indicate decisively a clear and convincing version of Shakespeare the artist, nor even of the environment from which he sprang.

This is not to say that Wilson does not have his points of view on issues which, elsewhere, have been taken to be decisive. He goes to some lengths, for example, to credit Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, with being Shakespeare's first and most important patron. More significantly he is keen to establish Catholic sympathies and goes to enormous trouble to extrapolate his findings in the direction of Rome. But these remain passing themes of the book rather than its justification. It is as if Wilson, in the process of research, has developed conclusions or prejudices which his chosen format prevents him pursuing wholeheartedly.

The primary 'evidence' is, of course, the plays themselves and it is these around which Wilson attempts to build his narrative. This is achieved with varying success. Sometimes his links between themes or plots and contemporary events are convincing; sometimes they depend solely on that heartbreaking get-out clause 'it can hardly have been a coincidence'.

The book's worst moments, however, are Wilson's critical offerings. Here he seems to be at a complete loss. There are a painful series of examples, but the most vivid is perhaps the line that wraps up Hamlet: 'Above all, of course, Hamlet is one of the most cracking ghost stories of all time . . .'

Yet Wilson's book cannot quite be left without a tantalising glimpse of the target which to me, at least, rang strangely true. A passage from 1592 written by one Henry Chettle does appear to be about Shakespeare, and it describes a gentlemanly, well- dressed, honest and courteous man. Something about the respectful coolness of these remarks suddenly captures precisely the Shakespeare of Borges - a man oppressed by an awareness of his own genius and, understandably perhaps, nervous, almost frightened of its true nature.

Gary Taylor and John Jowett are in pursuit of a quite different prey. This book is primarily an editor's guide. They are concerned to define and isolate the external pressures which, with or without the author's consent, may have modified the texts of the plays which we now habitually regard as definitive.

These pressures are primarily those of the theatrical producer, the censor and the posthumous rewriter. This is a fiendishly technical business involving computerised concordances of the plays and close analysis of the likely processes of transcription combined with a careful and intimate critical awareness of what does and does not ring true. So, for example, the use of profanity became less acceptable in Shakespeare's later career and the authors provide exhaustive evidence of how individual words may have been changed to suit the new climate. The word 'heaven' is often more likely to have been originally 'God'.

The essay which dominates the book is aimed at inconsistences in Measure for Measure, which all editors and critics have noticed but which, until now, none have satisfactorily explained. In 120 pages of awesome detective work Taylor and Jowett prove - to the satisfaction of this under-informed reader - that there were interpolations after Shakespeare's death and they were probably made by the dramatist Thomas Middleton.

One can only regard such authority with humble respect. The book is not an entertainment, it is an excavation. Yet, since this is an exercise in textual precision, I cannot quite help pointing out that there are a few glaring misprints, the best of which is the word 'globably' on page 105. I think they meant globally, but, after reading Wilson, the hybrid word becomes an entirely satisfactory portmanteau: probably merged with globally. Exactly.

Comments