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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: June ::
Re: Why Biography?
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0495.  Monday, 19 June 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Ed Pechter <PECHTER@CONU2.BITNET>
        Date:   Saturday, 17 Jun 1995 20:25:04 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0487  Re: Why Biography? (Comment on Catholic)
 
(2)     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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 >
        Date:   Sunday, 18 Jun 1995 21:01:05 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0487  Re: Why Biography?
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Pechter <PECHTER@CONU2.BITNET>
Date:           Saturday, 17 Jun 1995 20:25:04 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0487  Re: Why Biography? (Comment on Catholic)
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0487  Re: Why Biography? (Comment on Catholic)
 
Vic Gallerano thanks me for asking why we're interested in Shakespeare's
biography.  I should be thanking him for providing a set of answers much more
interesting than the question.
 
Or questions--because there are different ones involved.  One is, why are we
interested in biographies?  I take it Vic Gallerano's answer is consistent with
the idea that we enjoy seeing how people's lives shape up (or fall apart), and
that we can even learn from what we see.  I think this is consistent with the
beginning of *The Poetics* where Aristotle talks about how we like seeing
similitude and how it's central to the way we learn. If you think that S's
plays are enjoyable the same way, then character comes back (what would I do in
Edgar's situation? etc), and even ethical stuff (is that a good thing to do in
these circumstances?).
 
Whether that's true or not, the question why we are interested in Shakespeare's
biography is a different question.  Vic Gallerano says it's not because his
biography will explain the plays, but I don't know what else it could be.
That's the most interesting thing about Shakespeare--that he wrote all those
great plays. The trouble is, there seems to be no way of connecting the life
with the works--or rather, too many ways, and no principle that can regulate
them.  Even if you assume that Shakespeare is expressing himself in the plays
(which is a very implausible assumption--round up the usual historical and
theoretical suspects by way of showing how implausible), there's just not
enough biography to work on.  There's a lot we know about Shakespeare, thanks
to the tremendous research of people like Chambers and Schoenbaum and Honigmann
etc, but it's not the right stuff.
 
Vic complains that the self-serving or prudential Shakespeare isn't very good
because it doesn't get us anywhere with *King Lear*.  (Well it does, actually:
don't let the kids have the power till after you die, what Fool says; or look
to your linen, as Rymer says--but I agree, there's more to the plays than
that.) But that's the point.  There's no way to get there from here.  In
effect, such work short circuits the biographical connection, and since the
biographical connection in place is the sweet swan of Avon, and the Life of
Allegory, etc, anything that will get us away from this and over to other ways
of trying to account for the plays' tremendous power to engage our interest is
a giant leap forward.
 
Ed Pechter
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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 >
Date:           Sunday, 18 Jun 1995 21:01:05 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0487  Re: Why Biography?
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0487  Re: Why Biography?
 
I confess I am totally at a loss to understand the current disdain for
biography. We study chimpanzees and whales to get a better understanding of who
we are and where we came from. But what can we study to get a better
understanding of what we can be and where we are going if not the lives of
those who surpassed the ordinary and mundane, those who blazed the trails of
our quantum leaps in understanding, of ourselves, the universe, of nature and
how to manipulate it to our advantage? The lives of people like Mozart, da
Vinci, Newton, Joan of Arc, Edison, Freud, carry important messages about who
we are, about what it means to be human that we can get in no other way.
 
I can't help but think that it is in part due to the ambiguous nature of the
biography of the greatest English writer that ever lived that current
scholarship has turned away from biography as a source of insight. How could
the man who wrote "who steals my purse steals trash", who made a hero of
Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, a noble character of Antonio in Twelfth
Night, who portrayed the heroic self defeat brought on by the generosity of
Lear, etc., etc., have left as a paper trail only a handful of litigations over
a matter of pounds, have been held up for vilification as a hoarder of grain in
time of famine, and have a left a gift in his will to the local loan shark! The
only possible answer is, he couldn't!
 
Awake, awake, ye scholars of the bard, and smell the coffee!
 
Stephanie Hughes
 

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