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Nine Lives of William Shakespeare


Graham Holderness


The Arden Shakespeare: Shakespeare Now! Series

London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (Hardcover, 2011)

 Paperback. x + 215 p. ISBN 978-1472517302. £12.99


Reviewed by Charles Whitworth

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III



Shakespeare Now!? Well, now and then perhaps, or once and future. Graham Holderness’s Nine Lives of William Shakespeare is an eminently readable and highly entertaining essay on (the impossibility of) Shakespeare biography, in the form of nine short bio-fictions. (One is reminded of the amusing dialogue on this very subject, that forms the 'Tailpiece' to the late Park Honan's Authors' Lives (1990). Honan (1928-2014) is the eminent biographer of Shakespeare and Marlowe, among others.) The principle is to take nine known facts and/or traditions concerning Shakespeare’s life, and extrapolate or invent a mini-‘life’ based on each. (Holderness does not say why just nine lives; nothing to do with cats and their legendary nine lives, presumably). The twenty-three-page Introduction contains another mini-life—barely two pages—‘a shilling life’, as Auden put it, based solely on the surviving historical documents. The Introduction itself is an essay on the inevitable mingling of fact and tradition in any Shakespeare biography, beginning with Nicholas Rowe in 1709.  

‘Biographers in pursuit of Shakespeare’s “personal story” are constrained by a lack of personal data’ [2]. ‘Restless under the constraints of the historical record, biographers end up telling us about many things besides Shakespeare, and filling the empty spaces with their own preoccupations’ [9].  ‘A biography of Shakespeare can be a thinly disguised self-portrait of the biographer’ [12]; this latter extreme of self-representation in what purports to be a biography of Shakespeare, is evident, according to Gary Taylor, in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World : How Shakespeare became Shakespeare (2004): ‘What purports to be an image of Shakespeare is only an idealized image of the biographer himself’ [quoted p. 14]. The above quotations selected from Holderness’s Introduction illustrate his healthy scepticism about the enterprise of Shakespeare biography, both serious, scholarly biography and works aimed at a wider, more popular readership (nonetheless serious for that, necessarily): he cites among other recent biographers, Jonathan Bate, Peter Ackroyd, Park Honan, Stanley Wells, Michael Wood, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Germaine Greer and Greenblatt, and more briefly, Bill Bryson, Charles Nicholl and James Shapiro.

The nine chapters have titles that refer to different aspects of the career(s) that Shakespeare is known or supposed to have had: ‘Shakespeare the Writer’, ‘Shakespeare the Player’, ‘Shakespeare the Butcher Boy’, ‘Shakespeare the Businessman’, ‘Shakespeare in Love: “Husband, I come”’, ‘Shakespeare in Love: “Fair Friend”’, ‘Shakespeare in Love: “A Female Evil”’, ‘Shakespeare the Catholic’, ‘Shakespeare’s Face : “The mind’s construction”’. Holderness’s procedure is to start with a known fact or facts, then to recount briefly the tradition born of the fact and grown over the centuries, then to speculate on the ‘life’ that might have been, and finally to invent a Story (Lives One, Four, Six, Seven, Eight), a Memoir (Lives Two, Three, Five), or a Fable (Life Nine). Each of the mini bio-fictions is written in the style of, or with explicit reference to, a well-known literary figure: for example, the story for Life One is called ‘The Shakespeare Code’; in the brief introduction, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is invoked. The story ‘Best for Winter’ (Life Four), alluding of course to The Winter’s Tale, imitates the stream-of-consciousness method of James Joyce or Anthony Burgess (Burgess intrudes maladroitly into the legendary episode, recounted by the diarist John Manningham, of Shakespeare’s having bested his friend and colleague Richard Burbage in a race to enjoy a lady’s favours after a show (‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III’): Holderness writes ‘a story … about Shakespeare beating Richard Burgess (sic) to a one-night stand in a citizen lady’s bed’ [47]; the author’s own stream of consciousness got the better of him there). The story for Life Six, ‘The Adventure of Shakespeare’s Ring’ is written in imitation of Conan Doyle; Oscar Wilde makes a cameo appearance in Holderness’s eighteen-page Sherlock Holmes mystery. Life Seven, ‘Shakespeare in Love : A Female Evil’, concludes with a story entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Ring : Full Circle. Northern Italy, June 1915’, written in the style of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The final Fable (Life Nine), ‘An Account of a Voyage to Bardolo’, has as models not only Gulliver’s Travels, but also such ‘island’ stories as H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. ‘Bardolo’—Holderness’s tongue is, throughout, firmly in his cheek. He wears his learning ever so lightly. The reader too is invited to take somewhat lightly—but not utterly to dismiss or scorn, for Holderness the scholar does not—those myriad biographies that continue to roll out in an unceasing stream year after year.

But what fun it must have been to write this book: to indulge a penchant for fiction writing, imitating styles from Rowe to Hemingway to Dan Brown, while simultaneously producing a genuinely scholarly essay on literary, specifically Shakespeare, biography—meta-biography, so to speak. Meta-everything really, and inter-textuality to boot: the Fable’s and the book’s final lines are ‘this is all I have left of Bardolo: such stuff as dreams are made on. There it is, far away over the untroubled waves, resting quietly on that far horizon; for ever rounded with a sleep’ [206]. Nine Lives of William Shakespeare is guaranteed not to put you to sleep.   


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