Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holderness says: All this is changing.

 In his blog entry titled "Queering Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes" posted yesterday on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Blogging Shakespeare site, University of Hertfordshire professor Graham Holderness discussed his view of biography as revealed in his new book, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare. Holderness said: 
Since there is no direct evidence that Shakespeare did in actuality enjoy and suffer a gay relationship with the Earl of Southampton, or with any other man, it seems legitimate for a fictional commentary to take the form of invention, and to operate by parallelism and contrast rather than by historical narrative. ‘The Adventure of Shakespeare’s Ring’ in Nine Lives of William Shakespeare finds Holmes and Watson, pursuing the theft of ‘Shakespeare’s ring’ from Stratford’s Birthplace Museum, drawn into the gay milieu of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, and thence provoked into an acknowledgement of their own homosexual attachment . . .
Holderness' Nine Lives . . . was released December 8 by Continuum Books as part of their Shakespeare Now! series of short books that "engage imaginatively and often provocatively with the possibilities of Shakespeare's plays" according to the publisher. The series is edited by Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham and Simon Palfrey of the University of Oxford, UK.
In an October 27, 2011 post titled  "Nine Lives of William Shakespeare"  on Blogging Shakespeare, Holderness said:
It is now evident that that the supremely confident scholarship of Lee, Chambers and Schoenbaum was unconsciously shaped by a shadow: the “Shakespeare Authorship Problem” that began, from the middle of the 19th century, to question the capacity of “the Stratford Man” to produce those works, and to attribute them to Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or a host of other Renaissance illuminati. Mainstream Shakespeare biography generally declined to engage with these initiatives, treating them as at best eccentric, and at worst insane. But these maverick amateur intellectuals were raising questions of great interest and importance, questions avoided by the biographical establishment – which is why so many great minds (Hawthorne, Emerson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Freud) were interested, or even persuaded, by the anti-Stratfordian case. What is the relationship  between art and the artist’s life? Is drama autobiographical? Why are there gaps and inconsistencies in the Shakespeare life-story? Why is it that unlike other comparable national poets, Dante or Cervantes or Goethe, Shakespeare’s life seems somehow not to fit with his works?
All this is changing. Now a “New  Biography” of Shakespeare is at last beginning to emerge, one that is prepared to address all the questions and anxieties suppressed by the mainstream biographical tradition. New evidence from archaeology is reorienting our view of Shakespeare’s Stratford life. Scholars are beginning to chart the history of Shakespeare biography, and to disclose its unconscious ideological assumptions. Since Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, “conjecture” and “speculation” have acquired a new positive status. Critics are looking again at biographical fictions, and considering them as evidence alongside the facts.
Holderness is also the author of Shakespeare and Venice (Ashgate, 2009). In a September 6, 2011 post on Blogging Shakespeare titled "Shakespeare out of Venice" Holderness said:
I am convinced that Shakespeare never did visit Venice, but relied (as Lewes Lewkenor did) for his knowledge and opinion on books, pictures, maps, reports, rumours and conversations. But I too still like to believe that somewhere, in that enchanted land that lies between his Venetian plays, the inherited mythology of Venice, and the modern reader, there is a Shakespeare who somehow found his way there. A Shakespeare who lay back on the cushions of a gondola, rowed by a Saracen Moor, and trailed his hand in the water of the Grand Canal; who marvelled at the splendour of the palaces and the thronging business of the Rialto; who watched the Jews in their red and yellow hats hurrying in and out of the Ghetto, and marvelled at the beauty of the Jewish women; who followed music and laughter down dark and narrow passages in a city composed, like Calvino’s invisible cities, of desire and fear . . .
In a panel discussion on the topic of Shakespeare biography at the Nov. 28, 2009 conference on Shakespeare biography titled "Shakepeare: from Rowe to Shapiro" held at The Globe in London, Holderness said:
If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes – if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it – it wouldn’t be Rowe’s, it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s.
He clarified this statement in a public letter that appeared in Michael Prescott's Blog on March 5, 2010 under the title "Graham Holderness clarifies his position". In this letter, Holderness said:
My name is Graham Holderness, and my position on the Shakespeare Authorship Question is that I am interested in reasonable doubt, but not in alternative certainty."
Holderness also addressed the issue of Shakespeare's biography in the journal Critical Survey Vol 21, No. 3 Winter 2009 edition titled "Shakespeare and 'the personal story'" where he comments in the introductory article co-written with Katherine Scheil: 
Shakespeare scholars since Edmund Malone have tried to construct a biography based on the historical evidence, and to explore links between the man and his works. There is of course massively more information about the latter than the former, but the two are notoriously difficult to connect.
So does the fact that Holderness is offering this viewpoint on the ultra-Stratfordian Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website represent a change in the approach to the Shakespeare authorship question? I think it does. 

Oddly enough, James Shapiro, who excoriated imaginative biography in his 2010 book on the Shakespeare authorship, Contested Will, had this to say about Nine Lives . . .:
Required reading for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s life or in how literary biography gets written. There’s no better place to turn for distinguishing facts and traditions from more imaginative accounts of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare. Graham Holderness is a terrific guide and a talented writer.’
Curiouser and curiouser.

Continuum Books re Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness:
We know relatively little about Shakespeare’s life, and yet it continues to fascinate us. This new biography of Shakespeare identifies and expounds the many possible ‘lives’ that can reasonably be drawn around the basic facts, traditions and literary remains of his legacy. Graham Holderness takes a hard and fresh look at the facts, the traditions, and the possible relations between a life and the works that life created. He offers nine possible short ‘lives’ of Shakespeare, each based on specific facts and traditions, drawn from the documentary record and from biographical interpretation and each supported by a body of critical and biographical work. Each section includes a critical essay detailing the biographical facts and showing how they have been interpreted, paired with a fictional narrative based on those facts. The fictional narratives use various styles, short stories, bogus historical documents, magic-realist fables. Each engages with the key facts, traditions and interpretative consensus, and creates an imaginary space in which the dry bones of historical record can be made to live.
Nine Lives . . . Table of  Contents:
Introduction \ 1. LIFE ONE: Shakespeare the Writer: Story: ‘The Shakespeare Code’\ 2. LIFE TWO: Shakespeare the Player: Memoir: ‘Master Shakespeare’s Instructions to the Actors’\ 3. LIFE THREE: Shakespeare the Businessman: Story: ‘Best for Winter’ \ 4. LIFE FOUR: Shakespeare in Love: ‘Husband, I come’: Memoir: ‘Shakespeare’s Ring: First Circle’ \ 5. LIFE FIVE: Shakespeare in Love: ‘Fair Friend’: Story: ‘The Adventure of Shakespeare’s Ring’ \ 6. LIFE SIX: Shakespeare in Love: ‘A Female Evil’: Story: ‘Full Circle’ \ 7. LIFE SEVEN: Shakespeare the Butcher Boy: Memoir: ‘Some further account of the life &c. of Mr William Shakespear’ \ 8. LIFE EIGHT: Shakespeare the Catholic: Story: ‘He dyed a papist’ \ 9. LIFE NINE: Shakespeare’s Face: Fable: ‘An Account of a Voyage to Bardolo’ \ Index
Update 12/22/11:
Read a preview of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare as described in Holderness' review of Roland Emmerich's film, Anonymous, on the Continuum Books blog December 2, 2011:
. . . [See] my chapter on 'Shakespeare the Writer', available from Continuum as a free preview, and the accompanying story 'The Shakespeare Code'. The chapter presents Shakespeare, from the historical record, as very much as an engaged, collaborative, participatory writer for the stage. He belongs to the boards and the streets, not the study. The story, which is specifically about 'stolen documents, secret codes, buried treasure', is just as fantastic as Anonymous, with no resemblance to any persons living or dead. But it suggests a very different view of Shakespeare's writing. It's a fable that explores these issues not literally but symbolically, as do Shakespeare's own plays. It hooks into real historical facts, but is also more concerned - as was Shakespeare himself - to think with and beyond them, than to regard them as restrictions on the liberty of the imagination.
Update 02/03/12: William S. Niederkorn's review of Graham Holderness' Nine Lives of Williams Shakespeare (Continuum, 2011) titled "Occupying W.S." in the Feb. 2012 issue of Brooklyn Rail magazine.