Book Review: Shakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

Shakespeare's LivesShakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

The other night a local newscast had a story about Shakespeare’s grave, namely that his skull may or may not be inside there. I didn’t bother paying a ton of attention to the story because just a day or two before, I’d finished this book, which says (among many other things) that the grave has either Shakespeare’s bones, a horde of manuscripts or nothing but dust. It depends on who’s story you believe.

That’s kind of what this thick, endlessly facinating book is about. It’s less a biography of Shakespeare than a survey of his biographers, idolaters and haters. It looks at dozens and dozens of books, pamphlets, monographs and memoirs about the Bard and charts how a poet and playwright from Stratford became the national poet and heir to controversies that will never quite go away completely.

In a brief biographical sketch at the beginning, Schoenbaum lays out the facts of Shakespeare’s life: family history, as proven by biographical records, his career and a general order of plays, his retirement death and, eventually, the extinction of his direct biological line. It takes him maybe 100 pages, give or take. That’s when the fun starts. With Shakespeare dead and buried, the legends begin to fly all fast and furious: he was a deer poacher! He died after a drinking bout with Ben Jonson! He was cuckolded and in a final fit of pique, denied his wife the honor of being in the same grave! Soon, the legends didn’t fill in the gaps, they replaced the known facts. Oh, and we’re just getting started here, folks.

Over the centuries, more and more stuff sprung up about Shakespeare, all of which Schoenbaum has a knowledge of. There was eccentric scholars like George Steevens and James Halliwell-Phillips, rigorous biographers like Edmund Malone and EK Chambers and forgers and fraudsters like William Henry Ireland. And to his credit, Schoenbaum makes these controversies and battles of letters come alive in his pages; the Ireland-Malone battles are downright facinating and would make a good book on their own, although I could say the same for the battles over portraits 0r a wild and drunken Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 where people danced and drank during a flood that wrecked havoc in Stratford.

Throughout the book, Schoenbaum tries to keep an even tone, never going too far to bash one critic or writer unfairly; he’s even rather kind to forgers like Ireland. But when he gets to the people trying to discredit Shakespeare completely, he just unleashes on them and it’s amazing; he calls books unreadable, writers cranks or lunatics and dryly leaves in large chunks of their nearly-unreadable prose. It’s fun, but it’s also interesting and colourful history: Delia Bacon waits overnight in Shakespeare’s vault, working up courage to break into it and get the proof she needs William didn’t write his plays; Ignatius Donnelly builds elaborate machines to prove Francis Bacon left a hidden message inside the plays. All sorts of names pop up here: Mark Twain says he doesn’t believe Shakespeare could have written all these works, while Malcolm X says he didn’t even think Shakespeare was even a real person.

Although this book sounds like the kind of thing only a scholar would have any interest in, I think really anybody with an interest in Shakespeare can get a lot out of this. Although his writing is rather British in tone (lots of passive voice, too), Schoenbaum’s book never stops being interesting. And he’s read so, so many things it’s impressive; he’s even read multiple versions of books he despises for this project.

By the end of it, I was left with one sort-of regret about this book: it was written too soon! A little over a decade after the second edition was published (1990), a new spate of controversies arose: a portrait of Shakespeare found in Canada (see: Shakespeare’s Face), duelling biographies by Germaine Greer (Shakespeare’s Wife) and Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) and more arguments over if he wrote Edward III. It would’ve been nice to see his opinion on books by James Shapiro, Bill Bryson and Harold Bloom. But really, that’s such a minor quibble.

Don’t make this the first book you read about Shakespeare, but I’d definitely recommend reading it after Greenblatt, if only so you can see how much supposition went into that book and give you some perspective into it.


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