Whalen on Greenblatt’s review of Bate in Dec. 17 New York Review of Books

Review of a review: For Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare biographies must be boldly imaginary.

Richard F. Whalen

Since Shakespeare biographies must necessarily be mostly imaginary, they should be written without anxiety, inhibitions or fear, argues Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespeare scholar and author of his own imaginary biography of the Stratford man as Shakespeare.

In a long review of Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age (2008), Greenblatt contends that Bate’s biography, although also mostly imaginary, falls short of his standard of uninhibited, anxiety-free, fearless confidence. “Do it with local color,” Greenblatt commands. “Work in all you know. Make them [your readers] accomplices.”

“Given the paucity of evidence,” Greenblatt says, “that enterprise demands speculation, imaginative daring and narrative cunning.” In effect, if there are not enough biographical facts, dare to trick the reader by cleverly making them up. If Greenblatt prevails, future Shakespeare biographies will have to be shelved in the section for fiction.

Greenblatt’s stinging and provocative critique of Bate’s biography for being insufficiently imaginary appears in the December 17, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books (56:20) as “Shakespeare in No-Man’s-Land.” Greenblatt’s own imaginary biography, Will in the World (1997), follows his prescriptions for a Shakespeare biography. It opens boldly and unapologetically with the words in capital letters, “LET US IMAGINE”.

In Greenblatt’s opinion, Bate’s imaginary Shakespeare biography is too timid: “The spectacle of anxiety in Bate’s book goes well beyond the ordinary signals of caution.”

Greenblatt notes correctly that the usual qualifiers such as “could have” and “may well have” are the “stock-in-trade of Shakespeare biographies.” He adds that biographers are subject to “professional policing” by scholars intent on catching mistakes and “shaming those guilty of carelessness, rashness, or ignorance.” This threat, Greenblatt says, “can produce a painful aura of fear and inhibition, especially among those whose very gifts make them most sensitive to criticism.” That is to say, Jonathan Bate.

In this belated review of Bate’s 2008 book, Greenblatt complains about Bate’s “skittishness” and his “uneasiness about his own project.” He says Bate’s “nervous” shifting of tenses from dramatic present to historical past “suggests a writer uncomfortable with what he is doing.” Bate tries to use “action prose” of sentence fragments “but his heart is clearly not in them.”

“Where does this leave the beleaguered biographer?” asks Greenblatt. He answers: “In a no-man’s-land of swirling hypotheticals and self-canceling speculations; stillborn claims that expire at the moment they draw their first breath.”

Greenblatt gives what he calls a brief sampling from Bate’s book:

It is not outrageous to imagine…
Could it have been at the same age…?
Could he be the voice not only of Guy but also of William…?
Could he have been Shakespeare’s apprentice in the acting company?
It seems more than fortuitous that…
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that…
Guesswork of course, but I have a hunch that…
I have an instinctive sense that…
It is hard not to notice…
We cannot rule out the possibility that…
Could it then be that…?
One of the two could easily have been…
He may well have been there…
The players may well have been…
This could have been the occasion…
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that…
…requires us to countenance the possibility that…

It is not very clear, however, how Bate’s alleged anxiety, inhibition and fear as demonstrated above differs that much from Greenblatt’s own style of imagining and hedging. Here is a brief sampling of the way Greenblatt wrote his Will in the World (2004), with emphasis added:

In the summer of 1585, William of Stratford “may have been working in the glover”s shop, perhaps, or making a bit of money as a teacher’s or a lawyer’s assistant. In his spare time he must have continued to write poetry, practice the lute, hone his skills as a fencer – that is, work on his ability to impersonate the lifestyle of a gentleman. His northern sojourn, assuming he had one, was behind him. If in Lancashire he had begun a career as a professional player, he must, for the moment at least, have put it aside. And if he had a brush with the dark world of Catholic conspiracy, sainthood, and martyrdom–the world that took Campion to the scaffold – he must still more decisively have turned away from it with a shudder.

As it happens, Greenblatt and Bate, both leading establishment Shakespeare scholars, are head-to-head competitors in academic publishing. Greenblatt is a chaired professor of humanities at Harvard University. Bate is a professor at the University of Warwick. Each is general editor of a complete, annotated works of Shakespeare: Greenblatt’s from Norton in 1997 and Bate’s more recently from Random House, in 2007. Shortly after its publication, the queen awarded Bate the honorary title of Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

In his own Shakespeare biography, Greenblatt laid claim to frankly imaginary biography that for all its speculations is uninhibited and anxiety-free. “It is important,” he wrote in the preface to that book, “to use our own imagination” since “nothing provides a clear link” between Shakespeare”s works and the life of William of Stratford. (See my review of his book in the winter 2005 issue of Shakespeare Matters.)

Greenblatt repeats that theme in his review of Bate’s book:

. . . despite feverish attempts to comb the archives and find further documentary records of Shakespeare’s life, very little has turned up in the last century. . . . The paucity of new discoveries has not inhibited the constant writing of new biographies. (I am guilty of one of them.) The lure is almost irresistible, and with good reason.

The irresistible lure of course is the enduring cultural importance and the aesthetic power and intensity of the Shakespeare plays and poems. Everyone wants to know more about the poet-dramatist.

Greenblatt says:

Never mind that he left so few traces of himself. Never mind that that none of his personal letters or notes or drafts survive; that no books with his marginal annotations have turned up; that no police spy was ordered to ferret out his secrets; that no contemporary person thought to jot down his table talk or solicit his views on life or art. Never mind that Shakespeare–son of a middle-class provincial glover–flew below the radar of ordinary Elizabethan and Jacobean social curiosity. The longing to encounter him and know him endures.

“Given the paucity of the evidence,” Greenblatt asserts that writing a Shakespeare biography “demands (emphasis added) speculation, imaginative daring and narrative cunning, but these are all qualities that arouse the scholar’s suspicion and anxiety. Bate’s attempts to enter the life-world of his subject are underwhelming.”

As a committed Stratfordian (so far), Greenblatt never questions whether “the paucity of evidence” might suggest that Will Shakspere of Stratford was not the great poet-dramatist and that someone else must have been. He never raises the issue of William Shakespeare’s identity, an issue of which he is fully aware. In this 3,300-word review of Bate’s book, he argues from his position of authority at Harvard that biographies of the Stratford man as the great poet-dramatist can only be imaginary. Oxfordians can certainly agree with that.

The Greenblatt review may be purchased for $3 or by subscription at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=23499

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  • Robert Detobel  On December 22, 2009 at 10:20 PM

    “Imaginative biography”? Is this not what Greenblatt, when speaking of dissidents, called “creative design”? A god in his own imagination.

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