Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 116. Tuesday, 2 June 1992.
Date: Tuesday, June 2, 1992, 14:00:01 -0400
Subject: Russell Fraser's Biography of Shakespeare
I haven't finished reading it yet, but I'm almost through the second volume
of Russell Fraser's biography ("Shakespeare: the Later Years," Columbia,
1992). I'm curious to hear other reactions.
As a fan of Schoenbaum of long standing, I'm uncomfortable with some of the
speculation that Fraser indulges in. For example, in the midst of a
discussion of Shakespeare and religion, he says: "Whatever he was in life,
John Shakespeare died a Catholic." So much for secular agnosticism toward
documents of uncertain origin.
And there is a certain density to Fraser's style that takes some getting
used to. He writes elliptically and allusively, and sometimes elusively;
phrases like "although" and "too" and "however" that indicate
intensification or qualification appear later in a sentence than you'd
normally expect. His writing is meant to be tasted and then savored rather
than plowed through. He isn't writing for an introductory audience, and he
admits as much in the preface; the discussion of the Works would be
incomprehensible to anyone who had not actually read the work in question.
(I have to admit that for three or four of the plays, my recollection was
dim enough to cause some trouble here.)
Yet Fraser has also convincingly drawn the rush and tumble of daily
experience. Like Marchette Chute, but far more carefully orchestrated, he
has tried to find Shakespeare more by the shadow he casts than by direct
examination (which is in any case impossible). Events of the time are shown
as they might have been perceived from a particular vantage point. In the
process a sense of Shakespeare as a human being emerges: skeptical,
complex, contradictory, but driven by an overwhelming need to body forth.
The comments on the plays are uneven, but some of that may be due to the
aforementioned dimness on my part. More than once Fraser's comments hit me
as so perfectly formed that I laughed out loud. In either case the prose
builds momentum until it seems to be charging forward to a conclusion,
pulling an untold number of strands together in its wake.
Any other reactions?