Tuesday, July 17, 2012

UK professor says Shakespeare biographies are bunk

University of Kent at Canterbury emeritus professor David Ellis’ new book, The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies (Edinburgh University, 2012), has been released in the US and received a starred review by Margaret Heilbrun in the May 2012 edition of Library Journal. The short review under the title “New Titles onShakespeare” offers this insight:

In this meaty little book, Ellis takes on the spate of biographies of Shakespeare in recent decades. With incisive scholarship and wit, he demonstrates that most have been written in the absence of credible evidence: authors infer details of Shakespeare’s life and beliefs from information about the times, unverifiable anecdotes and jokes, sometimes even the sheer lack of evidence (e.g., Shakespeare must have been “discrete” and “concealing” because his name seldom appeared in the public records). . . . Non-academics and academics alike should pick this it up; it’s a sleeper and strongly recommended. (Given the price of the hardcover, consider waiting for the paper edition—ISBN 9780748646678 $32.50—due out in January 2013).

The publisher's publicity on Amazon.com says:

How can biographies of Shakespeare continue to appear when so little is known about him? And when what is known has been in the public domain for so long? Why have the majority of the biographies published in the last decade been written by distinguished Shakespeareans who ought to know better? To solve this puzzle, David Ellis looks at the methods that Shakespeare's biographers have used to hide their lack of knowledge. At the same time, by exploring efforts to write a life of Shakespeare along traditional lines, it asks what kind of animal 'biography' really is and how it should be written.
We asked Dr. Ellis if the lack of information about the Stratford candidate might have influenced him to consider the possibility of an alternate authorship candidate. Ellis replied:
I believe there is enough information available about Shakespeare to support the idea that he wrote most of the plays usually attributed to him but not enough to justify the huge pile of biographies which have appeared over the last fifteen years.  Many of these incorporate fiction without the reader being made aware that they are doing so.  The open or avowed mixing of fiction with biography has always troubled me, but that may be a matter of taste.
Ellis’ phrase, “avowed mixing of fiction with biography” could very well describe Graham Holderness’ new fiction/non-fiction Shakespeare bio Nine Lives of WilliamShakespeare (Continuum, 2011) in which he creates avowed fictional stories about Shakespeare to flesh out his book in which he claims to “. . . address all the questions and anxieties suppressed by the mainstream biographical tradition.”

Ellis joins James Shapiro who, in his 2010 Shakespeare bio about the authorship question, Contested Will, also excoriates authors who enhance the bald Shakespeare biography with fictional toupees -- although, strangely, Shapiro recently praised the Holderness mélange of fiction and non-fiction.

Arch-Stratfordian Holgar Syme of the University of Toronto is another academic who has warned that fictional biographical claims in support of their candidate harm the Stratfordian position. In an October 18, 2011 post titled “Enough Already” on his web-log Dispositio, Syme said, “If nothing else, a serious engagement with anti-Stratfordian claims might make us better scholars, too. . . . And we might as well admit that traditional Shakespeare scholarship has its own significant blind spots."

Four outspoken Stratfordian academics -- Ellis, Shapiro, Holderness and Syme --  have recently denounced the false nature of traditional Shakespearean biography. Ellis said no new information on Shakespeare has come to light in the last 100 years, and Samuel Schoenbaum’s ultimate bio of Shakespeare biography, Shakespeare’s Lives, makes it clear that the previous 200 years was filled with hearsay and fraud, and the 100 years before that was an echoing silence. Ellis calls this black hole “enough information” to support the Stratfordian attribution, but clearly it is NOT enough information, or Ellis et al, would not have the “huge pile of biographies” to complain about. If there were enough information available for a rational biography, Stratfordians would not feel compelled to make stuff up.

Ellis’ The Truth About William Shakespeare is not currently available in e-book format. The paperback edition is due out in January 2013.

Holgar Syme at http://www.dispositio.net/archives/476

UPDATE 07/23/12
Dr. Richard Waugaman posted a review of the Ellis book on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/review/R2UD730604HY40/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#R2UD730604HY40

NOTE: Also of interest in the May 2012 edition of Library Journal is a review of Julia Thomas' Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon (Univ. of Pennsylvania. Jul. 2012). Margaret Heilbrun said, "In 1769, the renowned actor David Garrick organized a Shakespeare celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon. When he left the town, Garrick cursed Stratford as 'the most dirty, unseemly, ill-paved wretched looking place in all Britain.' Yet less than 70 years later the house where Shakespeare was born and raised came up for auction and its preservation became a national crusade, though not every class embraced the cause equally. . . .Thomas asks what change in values had occurred that made Victorians see Shakespeare’s birthplace as pivotal to an appreciation of him."