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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Ungentle Shakespeare?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1718  Sunday, 8 July 2001

From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Saturday, 07 Jul 2001 11:38:43 -0400
Subject:        Re: Ungentle Shakespeare?

My thanks to Nancy Charleton for providing access to Peter Ackroyd's
recent review in the Times of Katherine Duncan-Jones's new biography of
Shakespeare. I recommend _Ungentle Shakespeare_ highly, though I doubt
that any Shakespearean will agree with everything D-J writes, and some
will be deeply affronted by the portrait of Shakespeare that she
presents.

As I read her work, D-J proceeds from two major premises: (1) that the
_Sonnets_ are basically biographical, and, as such, provide a kind of
roadmap for the would-be biographer; and (2) that Shakespeare was like
others whom D_J has researched in the Renaissance -- a rather unlikeable
fellow when judged from modern standards, despite his surface "manners"
and seeming modesty.  The second premise seems to me more doubtful than
the first, but many will contest the first premise as well.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I was bowled over by
D-J's command of the period -- not just her historical knowledge, but
her acquaintance with the literature, the customs, and the economics of
the time. Most of all, I grew to admire her willingness to draw
inferences and come to conclusions that she knows others will contest. I
also think she is a shrewd reader of the plays themselves, observing,
for example, that _The Tempest_ is, among other things, "a farewell to
boys." Of course it is! (Why didn't I think of that?)

I won't spoil the "plot" for others, except to say that I will never
read Jacques in _AYLI_ or Malvolio in _TN_ as I did before. If D-J's
book consisted only of these two discussions, it would have been money
well spent on my part.  In general, D-J argues that, early on,
Shakespeare learned to write for multiple audiences, not just one. I
think this is an important insight that many critics need to pay
attention to. (As an aside, just think of _The Merchant of Venice_, for
example. The idea of writing this play for a popular audience [Shylock
as 'other'] and for a discriminating subset of that audience [Shylock as
a tragic figure] opens up the play in a way that, to me, is most
satisfying.)

D-J also opens up the biographical aspects of the plays by noting that
some of the characters are Shakespeare (or part of Shakespeare) in
disguise. Two of the best examples are Touchstone (cf. Shake/spear) and
Malvolio ("bad Will").  Falstaff is a third example that I found
exceptionally convincing.

The figure of Shakespeare that emerges from this biography is of a man
whom we would like at first (excellent manners!), but like less and less
as we got to know him better. Conversely, Jonson, in D-J's view, is a
man we would dislike at first, but grow to admire the more we learned of
him.  Despite Jonson's jealousy of Shakespeare's success, D-J sees a
fierce integrity about Jonson that Shakespeare lacks: the latter is too
caught up in the quest for fame on the world's terms -- and too bitter
about slights and injuries that a bigger, better man would have let go
of more quickly.

There's much, much more to say, but I leave that to other readers who
wish to comment on this daring and, I think, important book. I'll just
end by assuring SHAKSPER readers that I have no connection to the
publishers or to D-J, whom I have never met, either professionally or
personally.

--Ed Taft

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