The Saturday Profile: William Shakespeare, Poet and Playwright - A genius, but so ordinary

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HIS 435TH year has been a good one. He is big in Hollywood - a new movie hyped for the Oscars - and in his own country he has just been voted "Person of the Millennium". His head is daily swiped through cash registers (look at the hologram on your Switch card); his works are raided by sub-editors in search of snappy headlines ("To Pep or not to Pep?"). And he's scribbling away with his quill in the top right-hand corner of the screen on which I'm writing, where he serves as my "Windows 97 Office Assistant". If his executors had sought to patent his image, like the trustees of the Diana Memorial Fund, his descendants would be able to buy out Bill Gates a thousand times over.

In fact, the blood line expired long ago. So what do we know of him? Not much, but more than we did a decade ago. Both his parents came from Warwickshire farming families. His father diversified from meat into leather manufacture. John Shakespeare was a typical English small businessman: careful of property and propriety, mildly litigious, a bastion of the town council. As an alderman, he was entitled to send his children to the local grammar school free of charge. He could not have done his son Will a better favour.

The network of 16th-century grammar schools was essential to Queen Elizabeth I's unification of the nation. Education was the seedbed of Britain's prosperity, its burgeoning empire and its energetic cultural life. The King's School, Stratford-upon-Avon, with a bright young Oxford MA as master, imparted a rigorous grounding in the arts of eloquence and debate via the Latin language. Among the set texts were such literary classics as Ovid's Metamorphoses. Young Will was supposed to study their style, but seems to have taken equal pleasure in their raucous, sexy matter.

We don't know how far up the school Will proceeded before he left. And his whereabouts in his early twenties still constitutes one of the great mysteries of English literature. Academics tend to favour the theory, first circulated by John Aubrey in the later 17th century, that he was a country schoolmaster. A series of tenuous, circumstantial connections raise the possibility that he became tutor in a Catholic household in Lancashire. Lawyers prefer the theory that he was a lawyer's clerk. Men of action lean to the image of him as a soldier in the Flanders wars, a traveller in Italy, or a sailor (given that Stratford-upon-Avon is about as far from the sea as you can get in our little country, it is intriguing that Shakespeare writes so vividly of violent storms at sea, mouldy ship's biscuits and drowsy lookout boys upon the high and giddy mast).

At the age of 18 he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years older than him and three months pregnant with his child. Thereafter, he must have been at home in Stratford periodically - his twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born a couple of years later. But the so-called "lost years" come to an end only when he turns up in London's theatreland in 1592. It is this world that is evoked with a dazzling mixture of historical accuracy and poetic licence in the film Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes as the Bard (pictured below).

Purpose-built theatres, professional writers, plays written for the general public as opposed to an aristocratic patron - all these were new things in the dying years of Queen Elizabeth's reign. A group of highly gifted, Oxbridge-educated young men, Kit Marlowe foremost among them, were creating dramatic heroes and antiheroes - Tamburlaine the Great, Dr Faustus, Barabbas the rich Jew of Malta - of unprecedented energy and ingenuity. Philip Henslowe, wheeler-dealing proprietor of the Rose Theatre, and Ed Alleyn, his charismatic leading actor, seemed to have all London at their feet. Then, as if from nowhere, a bit-part player with a provincial accent and nothing more than a grammar-school education started reworking old plays and stealing the thunder of the university men. The crowds flocked to his historical epic dramatising the battle between sturdy English Talbot and tricksy French Joan of Arc; they adored the Tarantino-like black comedy of his blood-spattered tragedy of Titus Andronicus.

Dying in poverty in that year of 1592, Robert Greene, one of the "university wits", warned his fellow writers against "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, who supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country." Within a couple of years, Marlowe had been killed in a brawl and "Shake-scene" was in the company of a new group of actors, led by Richard Burbage, whose unmannered truth-to-nature began to make Alleyn look like an old ham.

For the next 20 years, Burbage, Shakespeare and their colleagues were kings of the theatre world. They built their own playhouse, the Globe, and they got the best royal-command performances. Operating as a joint- stock company, they shared the profits. Where other playwrights were paid a pittance on a piecework basis, Will Shakespeare amassed a tidy fortune through his work as in-house company scriptwriter. Were he alive today, he would be in Hollywood - and holding out for a percentage of box office.

Much of the wit of Shakespeare in Love comes from exactly this parallel. Like Hollywood, Shakespeare's world was a place of deals and deadlines, egos and rivalries. The Bard of Avon, 1990s-style, is pragmatic, commercially astute and a team player. The emphasis redresses an enduring distortion. No group did more to make Shakespeare into the icon of universal genius than the Romantics of the 19th century - Goethe and Heine in Germany, Coleridge and Keats in England, Berlioz and Hugo in France. But their image of creativity was that of the solitary artist alone with his inspiration. The Romantic version did scant justice to the collaborative nature of his genius.

He began his writing career as a patcher and improver of other men's work. Just as Tom Stoppard was brought in to sharpen up the dialogue of Shakespeare in Love, so the man himself was sometimes brought in to spice up multi-author ventures, contributing individual scenes of a kind at which he excelled - the politician and the crowd for Sir Thomas More, the witty seduction attempt for Edward III. Towards the end of his professional life, he was happy to write in partnership with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as regular scriptwriter for his company, the King's Men. And he was always dependent on the input of his fellow actors. Recent scholarship has shown how many of his greatest plays underwent a process of revision and subtle modification in the course of their theatrical life.

What about his private life all this time? He can be traced to various addresses in east and south London, usually paying his taxes at the last possible minute. In 1604, while lodging in Cripplegate, he is called as witness in a civil lawsuit concerning the marital arrangements of his landlady's daughter. But everything about his own marital - and extramarital - affairs is, alas, a matter of speculation. His love sonnets are addressed to a fair aristocratic youth, probably the Earl of Southampton, and a lascivious "dark lady". Are they driven by homosexual desire? Promiscuous intent? Misogynistic fury? Or are they an elaborate game, a series of fantasies, like his plays? We just do not know.

One thing of which we can be sure is that the relationship between his sex life and his work was a great deal more oblique than is suggested by Shakespeare in Love. In this respect, the film remains squarely in the tradition of Romanticism, with its assumption that great art must be autobiographical. We find it very hard to accept the Renaissance idea that a sonnet, however passionate and heartfelt it sounds, may be primarily an exercise of the intellect, in the manner of a musical composition.

There were no more children, but the marriage survived. Perhaps in poor health, perhaps just bored, Will retired to Stratford-on-Avon in about 1612. He became his father - careful of his property, mildly litigious, a small-town worthy. What were his feelings for Anne? Some have detected an insult in the famous bequest to her of his second-best bed. But surely the right people for the largest bed were his daughter Susanna and her husband, a local doctor. Second best would be good enough for a widow.

Soon after Shakespeare's death, his fellow actors assured his continuing life by printing all his plays in the handsome book now known as the First Folio. For the first time, the full range of his achievement could be absorbed: plays of every kind (comedies, tragedies, histories, satires, romances); characters of every rank; language of every style (a vast vocabulary, an amazing ability to crystallise thoughts into memorable sayings).

Shakespeare's greatest cunning is never to give too much away. He lets his characters speak for themselves, while keeping his own counsel. There is a whiff of crypto-Catholicism about some of the plays, but no firm evidence. So it is that he leaves space for us to project our opinions on to him. For radical theatre directors in the 1960s, the plays were joyously anarchic and contemptuous of authority; for Tory politicians in the 1980s, Shakespeare was spokesman for national pride and hierarchical social order. According to Jorge Luis Borges, literary sage of South America, the key to Shakespeare is that he is at one and the same time "Everything and Nothing".

So long as there are actors to play his parts, readers to be stimulated by his words and creative artists to be spurred by his example, Shakespeare will go on thriving. The new millennium will see thousands of remakings of him that we have no way of anticipating. But there is something especially winning about the Will of the Nineties. From the 1960s to the 1980s, there was a stultifying polarisation between "radical" and "traditional" Shakespeare. 1990s Shakespeare is more fluid, more laid back. We have let ourselves accept that he swings both ways - in politics, in style, in sexuality. The sexiest thing about Shakespeare in Love is Gwyneth Paltrow with her boy's kit on: the liberation of cross-dressing and the excitement of trying out different sexual identities are at once very 1990s and genuinely 1590s.

Tom Stoppard and his collaborators have done for Shakespeare what Shakespeare did for Cleopatra. They have transformed history into myth, and, in so doing, have demonstrated how "age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety."


The author's `The Genius of Shakespeare' is published by Picador

Life Story

Born: Stratford-upon-Avon, 23(?) April 1564.

Educated: Local grammar school.

Vital statistics: Married Anne Hathaway, 1582; two daughters, Susanna and Judith; one son, Hamnet,, died aged 11.

Died: 23 April 1616.

Works: 36 plays in collected edition (First Folio, 1623); involved in half a dozen more. Poems include 154 love sonnets.

Influences: Old plays and romances, chronicle histories, Latin classics, anything he could lay his hands on.

His friends said: `He was not of an age, but for all time' (Ben Jonson).

His admirers say: `After God, Shakespeare created most' (Alexandre Dumas).

His detractors say: `All his characters speak one and the same pretentious and unnatural language, in which no living man ever has spoken or could speak' (Tolstoy).

He says: `I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men' (Falstaff).