Why do people read a biography of Shakespeare? Either as a substitute for or as a supplement to a reading of his work. I may read about Byron or Orton because the life itself is both well-documented and well worth watching; but Shakespeare’s life is neither. How he behaved, what he endured, who he knew, where he went — such information does not expand or deepen my grasp of human possibility, as in their different ways the history of Thomas More or John Milton does. The extant marks of Shakespeare’s mortal passage don’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the world or the human. The works — various and ambiguous as they are — tell us something about both; the life doesn’t. Instead, far more often, we must apply our pre-fabricated theories about the world and the human in order to interpret the artifacts and ambifacts before us.
So why write about the life, instead of the works? The life is a cover for an interpretation of the works; it gives the pretence of objectivity and the pleasure of narrative to a few hundred pages of critical fiat. Russell Fraser’s Shakespeare: The Later Years contains 88 pages of notes (the text itself is only 280 pages); but the overwhelming majority are simply line-references to phrases culled from Shakespeare’s plays and poems, verbal glitter with which Fraser decorates his own rococo prose. Some pages of notes (290, 296, 300 …) consist entirely of such citations, and some pages of text consist largely of such quotations (pages 50 to 57, for instance, contain 80).
This is the second half of a two-part biography; Young Shakespeare, published in 1988, is now in paperback, and we can probably look forward to a boxed set, which ambitious grandparents will bestow upon thousands of helpless teenagers. Both volumes give the impression of serious documentation, and quite a few people have taken the biography as a serious piece of scholarship. But Fraser’s apparatus tells you almost nothing that you could not find yourself, assisted merely by a concordance, and the same is true of Fraser’s text, a recitation of numbingly conventional interpretations of the works, dangling from a thin, dirty-from-overuse string of biography. For anyone at all familiar with this subject or this period, having to read both volumes is like being forced to eat, hour after hour, mouthful after mouthful of stale cake.
The moral — or premise — of Fraser’s story is that Shakespeare is the greatest: “he had no rivals, ancient or modern.” Admirers of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe or anyone else, see ye the error of your ways, and repent: abandon your idols, and worship the one true god. Fraser devotes three and a half pages (pages 170-74) to the whole of Jacobean drama, brusquely dismissing Webster and Jonson and Ford, not even mentioning Middleton — except to dismiss The Revenger’s Tragedy, which he continues to misattribute to Tourneur — apparently as uninterested in the last two decades of textual scholarship as he is in the first two decades of 17th-century drama. Shakespeare stands alone. Good monotheism, but bad biography.
What, in the gospel according to St Fraser, makes Shakespeare so great? He is unfailingly impartial. He has no opinions, and expresses them beautifully. St Fraser, by contrast, is full of opinions, which unassisted readers will often have difficulty distinguishing from facts. On page three alone, he asserts, without qualification, that The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s “first attempt at comedy,” that three of his first plays were printed by “pirate publishers,” that by 1594 Shakespeare was already known for “kingly roles and old man’s roles.” The first claim is at best debatable, the other two simply wrong.