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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: June ::
Re: Why Biography? (Comment on Catholic); Kingsley's
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0487.  Friday, 16 June 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Victor Gallerano <
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        Date:   Thursday, 15 Jun 1995 13:08:20 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Why biography?
 
(2)     From:   Marie Myers <
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        Date:   Friday, 16 Jun 1995 08:36:49 -0500
        Subj:   Kingsley's Hamlet
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Victor Gallerano <
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Date:           Thursday, 15 Jun 1995 13:08:20 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Why biography?
 
Last week Ed Pechter wrote one of the many comments on the question, "Was
Shakespeare Catholic?"  He observed that one, we can't answer the question.
Two, that our best speculations about Shakespeare's Catholicism do not help
answer any practical or theoretical questions about the plays.  And finally, he
wonders why we are so interested in such a useless undertaking, that is, in
biography?
 
I don't know if we can or can't answer the question, "Was Shakespeare
Catholic?"  And I agree that whatever the answer, it cannot do duty as an
interpretation of the plays.  I do think that our interest in biography might
be related to the pleasure we take in novels, but that pleasure is more than an
appetite for gossip.  So what is it?  Why do we care about biography?  "Tell
me," writes Ed Pechter, "he or she that knows."
 
I think that here, as with many things, it may be of some help to consult our
friend, Michel de Montaigne.  In _de Livre_ Montaigne says that he prefers this
kind of history (biography) because its writers, "...ammuse and busie
themselves more about counsels than events, more about that which commeth from
within, than that which appeareth outward..."  It is there that he finds "man
with whom I desire generally to be acquainted" and, in particular, "the
diversitie of the meanes of his collection and composing, and of the accidents
that threaten him."
 
Montaigne is not, I think, talking about the collection and composing of man in
his political arrangements, but those personal acts of collection and
composition of virtues and vices by which he constitutes himself a self: the
elements, that is, of character.  It is precisely that inward "constitution" of
character that the outward "accidents" of history threaten to undo.  And,
according to Montaigne, the great biographers are able to select and judge
(better than most of us) what went into the collection of those parts; how they
were composed into whole selves; what accidents of circumstance threatened to
unravel them; and, most importantly, how those selves succeeded or failed in
preserving that wholeness.
 
Not every biographer is competent to make those judgments, thus he who would
learn the things that Montaigne says he wants to know has to test the
biographer's judgment by his own.  This means scavenging the chronicles of
gossip and frivolous opinion, as well as those materials that bear the warrant
of true evidence.  In effect, readers like Montaigne are trying to make
judgments that stand on their own and that could form the foundation for what
he considers the best kind of biographical writing.  At it s best I think that
is the attraction we still feel for biography, and it is not unlike the
attraction we feel for both good and bad novels.  Thus, one does not write the
history of a life, one writes a life.  Biography is more like poetry than
history, that is, it is more like philosophy because, although it may not rise
to a precise knowledge of human beings, it rises to judgment (beyond which
Montaigne says he is too lazy to seek.)
 
In the case of our biographical interest in Shakespeare: I am not interested
because I think his biography will explain his plays, but because writing the
way he did, where and when he did is remarkable in its own right.  It is
remarkable as the "action " of an individual "collected and composed" of
various, recognizably human parts.  And those of us who are interested enough
to scavenge up the scraps (both the likely and wholly untrustworthy) of
information about things like his Catholicism, are trying to see the whole man.
 We are all trying to make judgments that would serve the still-to-be-written
biography of Shakespeare.
 
Ed Pechter is struck by Shakespeare's "usurious, uncharitable, litigious,
self-serving figure."  Jonathan Bate recently described him as "the most
cautious dramatist of his generation" not only because he avoided the political
persecution that afflicted most of his early rivals, but also because he
avoided their poverty.  I'm not sure that focusing on his venalities or his
"caution" says enough about Shakespeare's character. Those terms are too
reductive, too limited for any of us.  In Shakespeares's case, he seems to me
more a study in prudence...something that conventional wisdom does not lead us
moderns to expect from poets precisely because our modern, conventional wisdom
about the virtue of prudence is as limited as our modern, conventional wisdom
about poets and poetry.  ("Our modern, conventional wisdom" comes in two
varieties of the same: on the one hand there is the atomizing pedantry that
Montaigne attributes to Asinius Polio, and on the other, the historicist (whose
name is now legion) for whom, like Hegel's valet, no man is a hero.  "Not
because [the man] is not a hero, but becasue the valet is a valet.")
 
The evidence indicates that the greatest poet was "collected and composed" of
more that the ability to write _Lear_.  He was able to make money; he may well
have been a Catholic; he was not too proud to "collaborate."  Putting all those
things together raises questions about what we think we know about human
beings.  They are legitimate and important questions in their own right and not
less so for being difficult, daunting, and perhaps impossible to answer.
Thinking about Shakespeare's biography calls, finally, for a judgment that does
not explicate _Lear_, but might help us to understand some of the same things
that _Lear_ helps us to understand.
 
(By the way, thank you, Ed Pechter.  Whether any of the foregoing is a
satisfactory answer to you, your question was quite helpful to me.)
 
Vic Gallerano
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marie Myers <
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Date:           Friday, 16 Jun 1995 08:36:49 -0500
Subject:        Kingsley's Hamlet
 
Colin Chambers, Other Spaces: New Theatre and the RSC (Methuen, 1980), gives
the opening night of Buzz Goodbody's production of Hamlet as April 8, 1975.
Chambers fails to mention the actress playing Ophelia.
 
Marie Myers

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