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Review of UNGENTLE SHAKESPEARE by Katherine Duncan Jones

By Ken Kaplan

Deconstructing Ungentle Shakespeare: The Authorship Issue and Stratfordian Biography, Part I

ungentle-shakespeareThe great criticism, centuries old, of traditional Shakespearean biography has always centered around the massive liberties and speculations indulged in by orthodox authors that have no basis in extant evidence. It seems abundantly clear, however, that recent Stratfordian efforts, including essays in such prestigious journals as the Shakespeare Quarterly, (reluctantly attempting to establish correlation between Hamnet Shakespeare’s death and the theme of loss of son in the History Plays), have also moved in the direction, inspired (some would say forced) by Oxfordians, to find some correlation between the life and the works in terms of specific events and influences.

How else is one to interpret startling passages such as one finds in Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life, on page 21, in which Honan insists that the courtesy one finds in the author’s persona runs so deep that it could not have been picked up by casual association, and was the product of his relationship with his mother. This courtesy, according to Honan, reflected the following, “In his usual attitudes he (Shakespeare) is not so much cooly mercenary or aggressively thrusting as he is humane, receptive, and alert to tenderness and the public good, as if he had affinities with Warwickshire’s past and the Guild his grandfather had joined.”

The knowledgeable reader has to be stunned by such a statement, for if there was ever a documented life not only bereft of any indication of public concern, but peppered with events such as the Wayte lawsuit that contradicted this notion, it is the documented life of William of Stratford. It is only when one realizes that Honan appears to affected by and imitative of J. Thomas Looney and Charlton Ogburn, finding attributes of character and attitude in the author’s work and trying to retrofit them, clumsily, into the life that one understands more clearly the “madness” behind the method. Indeed, Diana Price, in her important work Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, says of Honan on page 268, “Honan finds more “autobiographical aspects” in the plays than most biographers”.

But if the foregoing represents strong movement in this direction, Ungentle Shakespeare represents a complete immersion in it. The name Edward De Vere does not appear once in Katherine Duncan-Jones’ relatively new biography of Shakespeare, but his specter, and the influence of the movement he has inspired, loom like a giant shadow over the entire project, effecting every aspect of her tome. To say Duncan-Jones has been influenced by Ogburn and the Oxfordian movement is a vast understatement. Ungentle Shakespeare is a complete appropriation and coopting of the methodology used by Looney , Ogburn, and others in seeking to fit biographical “facts” into the works, an appropriation that goes far beyond the boundaries established by most other traditional biographers.
“It is manifestly risky to treat plays as sources of personal information or reflection” states Duncan Jones on page 25, as she begins to interpret Act V, scene I of “As You Like It”, selectively quoting the passage to leave out what for years has been a strong Anti-Stratfordian argument. “Never the less, I think a backward gaze at Shakespeare’s Stratford years may be determined in…As You Like It.”(She reiterates a standard line that “The triumphant court comedian and companion to aristocrats , (evidence please), that the playwright has now become, interrogates, and patronizingly dismisses, the provincial clown that he once was, and might have remained had he not transcended his ‘so ,so’ fortunes by means of his ‘pretty wit’.”) But, then, like a sailor on a drunken binge, Duncan-Jones throws caution to the winds. Nearly every chapter is filled with attempts at allusions, connections, half-connections, and interpretations of events that might correlate to the canon.

To play the game of how the life is reflected in the works against the Oxfordians is a dangerous enterprise. Looney and his descendents have dozens, if not hundreds, of legitimate contact points to consider, including many specific biographical incidents in De Vere’s life that strangely appear over and over in the plays and poems. But Duncan-Jones (or any Stratfordian biographer) is left with only the barest conjecture and speculation. Ungentle Shakespeare tries ardently and seriously to bring Stratford Will to life via numerous specific incidents mirrored in the plays and poem, but conjecture is a kind word to apply to the often desperate measures Duncan-Jones seems to summon to try once again to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Aside from the rampant speculation -often becoming outright fabrication — that so dogs traditional biographers, one is immediately struck by how confused and contradictory Duncan-Jones narrative appears. Thus, although “As You Like It” (Shakespeare’s most personal play according to the author) expresses Shakespeare’s nostalgia for a “provincial England that was both ‘gentle’ and hospitable”, she seems oblivious to the fact that Shakespeare of Stratford’s documented career reflected the rise of the bourgeois money class embodied by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that was in its essence in direct opposition to that “provincial” order. Moreover, in discussing the “lost years”, her emphasis on the “noise, bustle, and grinding poverty of the Henley Street house …. in which the whole family of four adults and seven children lurched from crisis to crisis” (which apparently drove young Will to London, this after his father’s financial collapse when he was twelve) does not conjure up images of pleasant memories produced by order, that could later be recounted fondly in public venues.

Duncan-Jones, like most biographers preceding her, cavalierly brings up issues that require far more exploration, but are casually tossed aside as irrelevant or unimportant. (Honan assures us that Q1 in Hamlet is a “memorial reconstruction” and that “Hand D” in Thomas More is definitely Shakespeare’s, without any discussion of the contention for years surrounding these assertions. In the wake of the recent recanting of Donald Foster over “Funeral Elegy”, perhaps traditional critics will be more cautious and thorough in discussing such items). Not able to find any evidence of Shakespeare’s activities as either teacher or lawyer, nevertheless she mentions Malone’s suggestion, seconded by Fripp, that Shakespeare worked as a law clerk. “According to Fripp: ‘There is little doubt that the poet on leaving school entered an attorney’s office. It is not merely that, as has been often pointed out, his legal terms are legion, sometimes highly technical, frequently metaphorical, and often wrought into the very fibre of his writing but, and this is much more convincing, they flow from him unconsciously to the injury of his work’. (Duncan-Jones’ emphasis added).

Astonishingly, aside from the fact that again this is a chief Anti-Stratfordian argument, it is remarkable how flippantly Duncan-Jones dismisses this perception, and its ramifications, with the admonition that the lack of extant documents clearly rules such training out of the picture. So much for the strenuous work of many researchers over the centuries including George Greenwood and current Oxfordian expert in this area, Mark Alexander.

This sense that the biographer is groping in the dark permeates the entire enterprise. The Sonnets are biographical, except when they aren’t, when they need to be fictional because the situations described in them are impossible to reconcile with orthodox preconceptions. Thus Sonnet 125 is part of a sequence in which the speaker feels “…excluded from major office in the state or courts by his lowly origins and stigmatized profession of ‘player’, ..(and) creates a space for himself in poetry that is even more lofty than that of a courtier, and far more secure…He refuses either to be dazzled by court pageantry…or to envy those who hold conspicuous court office-‘Were’t ought to me I bore the canopy”.

Aside from the fact that there is a real issue over her interpretation of the viewpoint of the Sonnet writer that excludes an autobiographical explanation, the century-old question at the heart of the authorship issue remains: if Shakespeare in Sonnet 125 is donning a fictional persona, why did he choose it to intersect with that of the one person, Edward De Vere, who would emerge hundreds of years later as the hypothetical author, and, in addition, the one person who extant documentation would reveal was in the very position as Lord Great Chamberlain to actually do what the Sonnet asserts, “bear the canopy”.

In a section titled ‘Pity and Piety’, Duncan- Jones asserts,
“Before looking in more detail at Shakespeare’s external life in 1608-09, some scrutiny must be given to his inner beliefs.” Scrutiny may be required, but Duncan Jones seems helpless to provide any insight whatsoever, thrashing about in a quagmire of confusion.

“A personal event that might appear to tell us something about where Shakespeare’s own allegiance lay (concerning Catholicism) is the marriage of his elder daughter, Susanna, to the ‘impeccably Protestant’ Dr. John Hall.
Yet this too can be construed in opposite ways, either as affirming the family’s existing allegiance, or as providing it with the Protestant credentials that were now sorely needed….Yet alternatively Susanna Shakespeare’s
marriage to John Hall may simply reflect her father’s own religious sympathies. Whatever the religious inclinations of his youth, perhaps Shakespeare may have become a committed and convinced Anglican… or perhaps…,yet again…, on the other hand…maybe not”.

It is in passages such as these and in the consistent wild conjecture that led Richard Whalen to declare in his review of the book, “The rampant speculations may drive her readers to drink”.

In the face of such failures either to place her own discourse in critical relation to alternative explanations of the literary phenomenon she surveys or to provide some clear sense of the author’s inner beliefs, what strengths does Duncan-Jones offer the reader? Unfortunately it is a familiar story. Duncan-Jones is an assiduous researcher; once again, it is the world around Shakespeare that receives vivid and sometimes authentic treatment. Duncan-Jones has clearly mastered the art of filling-out an insubstantial and implausible biography with myriad details of the cultural life of the theater world and the period. One reviewer in the Philadelphia Inquirer commented in bold type, “Biography Links Shakespeare’s Writings With His Culture”. But this sense, to me, is misguided. Yes, Duncan-Jones has held up a greater magnifying glass to the hustle and bustle of England and London of the 1590’s-1600’s. But such intensification is a two edged sword, for it also magnifies greatly the black hole at the center of this, and all similar, works. (Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London is often jokingly referred to as “The London of Shakespeare”.)

Thus as she tries to give, she also takes away. The Aubrey legend that “when killing a calf, he gave a speech” is debunked as John Shakespeare, a glover, was never involved in butchery but gained the hides post slaughter. Duncan Jones tries to cover by assuming that this is really a reference to a local ritual, but what for years was supposedly a personal and specific reference now is , at best, only a regional and general one. Alas for poor Eric Sams (The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years…), who swallowed these legends whole, and has put great emphasis on the idea that the great amount of blood in Shakespeare had its genesis in this “calf killing”.

Similarly, in asserting that that the reference to “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches” by Nashe in 1589 most likely did not identify Kyd as the author, because his father was not of the class of noverint, (nor was Kyd a “shifting companion-he had steady employment), she undermines the entire Stratfordian chronology. It is instructive that although she can find extant documentation to discredit either partially or in whole the long standing “calf killing” and Kyd attributions, her claims that the young Shakespeare had a hand in the early Hamlet are entirely speculative and without any foundation.


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