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Who Was William Shakespeare?

An Introduction to the Life and Works


Dympna Callaghan


Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Paperback. xii+307 p. ISBN 978-0470658475. £19.99


Reviewed by Charles Whitworth

Université Paul Valéry—Montpellier III



No, this is not yet another book on that current hot topic, “the authorship question”, though the ambiguous/cagey title might convey such a first impression. The subtitle makes clear that that is not the book’s subject, though one has to open to the full title page to find that vital qualification; it does not appear on the front cover or on the half-title. Ambiguity and false leads though are multiplied with the cover illustration, the famous if utterly spurious Kesselstadt death mask, displayed as if Shakespeare—if it were Shakespeare—lies in state.

But Dympna Callaghan, her publisher and their cover designer are playing games with us: this is a good, dense and highly readable introduction to the Life and Works, in the best tradition of that ancient and worthy genre. It is furthermore a piece of New Historical criticism at its sober best, no frills, no tics, no sleight-of-hand tricks, and best of all, no airy speculations which turn up a few pages later masquerading as established facts upon which critical superstructures are airily erected. It reads and is organised very much like what may be an upgraded-for-publication version of its author’s undergraduate Shakespeare course at Syracuse University where she is William L. Safire Professor of Modern Letters. She was president of the Shakespeare Association of America in 2012-2013, and is the author or editor of several important scholarly works, among which are Shakespeare Without Women (2000) and The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Culture (2006). She has also edited The Taming of the Shrew (Norton Critical Editions, 2009) and Romeo and Juliet (Texts and Contexts, 2003). With such impressive scholarly credentials, she is more than well equipped to provide original and perceptive introductions to Shakespeare’s life and works. But this is no mere mechanical life-and-works primer, like the dozens already available on the market and on college bookshop shelves.

“Shakespeare’s life cannot explain his works, but it can help us to understand them”, reads the blurb on the back cover. The project is thus, not to separate Life and Works—l’homme et l’œuvre—but rather to juxtapose and interweave them. The bold, bald “Who was William Shakespeare?” of the title unfolds into the more complex “What, in sixteenth-century England, were the multifarious factors that went into making the phenomenon Shakespeare—the ensemble, man AND works—what he was and is?” The first of the book’s two parts is crucial: entitled “The Life”, it defines four major themes or functions that made little William, born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, into the man, the actor and dramatist and business man that he became in his relatively short lifetime, and also into the universal legend that he has become in the four centuries since. Writing, Religion, Status and Theatre are the four defining topics identified by the author. There is a wealth of scholarly matter in these chapters, which total just 96 pages. The second part, “The Plays”, is devoted to short discussions, of six to ten or eleven pages for the most part, of twenty-three plays. It is thus not “the works”, but a selection of plays, such as might reasonably be made for an undergraduate survey course.

The five chapters in Part One are very good indeed. It is refreshing to find unfamiliar information, particularly in Chapter 4, “Status”. The question of social status in Elizabethan England, often glossed over where Shakespeare is concerned—he was a member of a major professional troupe, therefore assured of the patronage and protection of, first, the Lord Chamberlain, then of King James himself, therefore “close to the court”, therefore no problem, etc.—is extremely well detailed and analysed by Dympna Callaghan. The drawn-out process of applying for and finally acquiring a coat of arms for John Shakespeare, a semi-literate small-town glover, against heavy opposition by the nobility and its vested interests, including members of the College of Arms itself, is meticulously sketched out. Callaghan singles out Hugh Clopton, a fifteenth-century Stratford dignitary (his bridge still exists) who became Lord Mayor of London, as a rare example of the possible rise in fortune for a local provincial. Rare indeed: in any case, John Shakespeare never made it, despite the acquisition of a coat of arms in 1596, thanks to the efforts of his son “the player”, William. That very grant, with others, though accorded by William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, was denounced by a College of Arms herald, one Ralph Brooke, as its beneficiary was unworthy: “Shakespear ye Player”. This is truly informative material, like much else in this chapter based on research in primary sources, whether destined for students or the ubiquitous “general reader”.

Likewise, the chapter on Writing gives much helpful detail on the grammar school curriculum, explaining on the way, just why Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, and many others, might be able to read but not to write, and why Shakespeare himself, a product of that grammar school curriculum in Stratford, was perfectly capable of writing his plays and poems without having been to university (which was also of course the case with Ben Jonson). Such solid material provides concrete rejoinders to anti-Stratfordian doubters who would have us believe that because his father and his daughter signed with simple marks, his son and her father could not possibly have written all those dazzling masterpieces. The chapter on Theatre retraces in passing some of the material on Status from Chapter 4, quite reasonably, as the social status of “players” was crucial to the entire theatrical enterprise. There is also a succinct résumé of censorship law in the sixteenth century, as it affected both the performance and the printing of plays. Shakespeare, as Callaghan observes, was “more successful in evading the ire of the authorities” [91] than, say, John Stubbes, author of The Gaping Gulf (1579), who lost his right hand, or Jonson, summoned before the Privy Council to answer charges of “popery and treason” to do with his 1606 play Sejanus (in which Shakespeare acted). The closest Shakespeare came to serious trouble with the authorities was when his company gave a special private performance of Richard II on the eve of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601, a performance commissioned by Essex’s friends and supporters. And he never had his works publicly burnt, as did the satirists Sir John Davies, John Marston, Everard Guilpin and Thomas Middleton under the so-called Bishops’ Ban of 1599. (It is somewhat misleading to say that Marlowe’s Ovidian translations, All of Ovid’s Elegies, “was burned on episcopal order along with the satires of John Davies” [91]. It was only ten of Marlowe’s Ovidian Elegies, bound with Davies’s Epigrams, the main item in that volume, that were consigned to the flames, along with the works of those other authors. The complete Elegies, forty-eight of them in three books, were published later, perhaps in 1600.)

Part II: The Plays, is divided into four sections corresponding to the four standard generic categories of Shakespeare’s plays: comedies, English and Roman histories, tragedies and romances. Each is subtitled with an allusion to an aspect of the life, thus roughly linking the two main parts of the book: Shakespeare’s Social Life (comedies), Shakespeare’s Politics (histories), Shakespeare in Love and Loss (tragedies), Shakespeare and Theatrical Magic (romances). Choices had to be made, obviously, and the twenty-three plays chosen for discussion are unexceptionable; there are nine in the Comedies section (only The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well are omitted; indeed the first and last of those are not included in the index). Of the English Histories, all three parts of Henry VI and the second part of Henry IV are omitted, as are King John and Henry VIII. The obvious tragedies are there, but not Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens (another that does not get a mention in the index), with Antony and Cleopatra; Julius Caesar and Coriolanus are in the Histories. Finally, only The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are included in the Romances section. Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen are among the absentees. So, except in scattered references, are the sonnets and the narrative poems. It is slightly puzzling to read such statements as “There is little in the way of irrefutable evidence to support the view that The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s first play, but simply because this has been a traditional assumption about the order in which the plays were written, Part II begins there” [17], when the author goes on in the conclusion to her section on the play [99-108] to give space and lend credence to the view that it dates from late 1594, when it was composed expressly for the Gray’s Inn Revels of that Christmas season [108]. It is uncharacteristic of Dympna Callaghan the Shakespeare scholar to fall back on “traditional assumptions”, and there is ample evidence elsewhere in her book that she is fully au fait with more recent scholarship, including the placing of The Comedy of Errors firmly within what the Oxford Shakespeare editors define as a “lyrical group” of works belonging to the years c. 1593-96:


Shakespeare did not begin his career writing rhetorically and artificially, and then by a steady and uninterrupted progression become more and more ‘naturalistic’; instead, in certain respects the verse in Shakespeare’s middle plays is more artificially and self-consciously patterned than anything we find in the earlier work. Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, Romeo and Dream are, like the narrative poems, displays of virtuoso verbal exhibitionism.(1)

There are many critical insights and perceptive comments on the plays, too many to catalogue here. Life-and-times and works are repeatedly set in equipoise, pertinent historical allusions woven into the fabric of the commentary. Commenting on Capulet’s rage when Juliet refuses to marry Paris:


Capulet’s tirade reflects real-life rage that many couples experienced when they contravened parental dictates in the choice of a spouse. When John Donne eloped with Anne, the sixteen- (or at most seventeen-) year-old daughter of Sir George More in 1601, the poet wrote to his new father-in-law imploring that although ‘I know this letter shall find you full of passion’, he might refrain from unleashing violent rage on his daughter: ‘I humbly beg of you that she may not to her danger feel the terror of your sudden anger’. [228]

There is crisp, elegant writing too. The wooing of the French princess Katherine by Henry V is a “formality, since the only marriage negotiations that count, namely those between Henry and the French king, have already taken place. This is a glimpse of Henry the soon-to-be-married man, as opposed to Hal the wastrel and Harry the warrior” [198].

Unfortunately, there are also signs of a hasty rush to deadline that is so often the bane of scholarly publishing, and for which proof reading pays the price. There are a few cut-and-paste errors: “Shakespeare himself would have inherited it [sic] 1601 when his father died” [66]; “Jonson … was for most of his career as a playwright and poet and [sic] a dues-paying member of his stepfather’s livery company” [72]; “Shakespeare has the malevolent Iago … echo the [sic] precisely the terms of disparagement” [82], etc. More embarrassing is the insertion of “Katherine Parr (Henry’s sixth wife)” into Henry VIII when the character in question is of course Katherine (the Folio spelling) of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, an error compounded by the misreading of the passage: Katherine does not ask “to pray in English as opposed to Latin” [33]. She asks Wolsey, who has addressed her in Latin, to speak English, saying “O, good my lord, no Latin/ …/ Pray, speak in English … Lord Cardinal,/ The willing’st sin I ever yet committed/ May be absolved in English” (3.1.41-49). The right Katherine here makes Callaghan’s point more forcefully: in the play at least, she, a devout Catholic (as Catherine Parr was not), asks the Cardinal to speak English and to absolve her in that language, not Latin. Another character misplacement: “As Falstaff points out in Henry V, honor is an intangible” [70]. No, Falstaff of course does not appear in Henry V; his death is memorably reported by the Hostess in Act 2, scene 3. His famous catechism on honour as ‘a mere scutcheon’ is spoken in 1 Henry IV, 5.1. On page 73, there is a reference to “Thomas Middleton’s comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday”; another Thomas, Dekker, is the author of that play. “Rosaline in As You Like It” appears on page 89; it may be just a misprint for ‘Rosalind’, but there is a Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and the error could cause confusion in the unwary or uninformed.

Something is amiss in the index, where the plays of Henry VI do not figure at all (though the historical king himself does), and references to those plays are erroneously indexed under Henry VIII. This makes for chronological absurdities, such as Thomas Nashe praising Henry VIII and its being particularly popular in the early 1590s, or its being performed in Henslowe’s Rose Theatre. In the passages indexed, however, references are, correctly, to the Henry VI plays in each instance. Henry VIII is indexed several times, and the same play is listed once as All Is True.

There is no bibliography, though the notes to each chapter contain a wealth of references. It would have been more economical and certainly easier for the user to follow up references to the plays and poems had a single edition of the Complete Works—Riverside, Bevington, Norton, Oxford, for example—been used. Instead, there is a haphazard plethora of Ardens—first, second and third series, often without ‘Arden’, let alone the series, being specified, sometimes with dates of reprints, sometimes of original publication—as well as individual Oxford, Cambridge, Pelican, Texts and Contexts, and other editions. Perhaps a reprint will be forthcoming, allowing for minor corrections and small amendments.

These shortcomings do not detract greatly from the interest and value of this substantial work of criticism, presented as an introduction to Shakespeare the man and his work, but amounting to considerably more than mere introduction. Dympna Callaghan meets admirably the challenge she set herself in the bold question of the title: who was William Shakespeare? For she shows us very well indeed who he was—and is—and why.


(1) Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor, with John Jowett & William Montgomery, William Shakespeare : A Textual Companion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987 : 97.


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