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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
NYTimes.com Article: Avon Calling
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0076  Monday, 12 January 2004

From:           Richard Burt <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Jan 2004 08:17:24 -0500
Subject:        NYTimes.com Article: Avon Calling

Avon Calling
January 11, 2004
By FRANK KERMODE

It is hard to imagine that even the most groveling of idolaters feels a
need for more books on Shakespeare than are already on offer. And
accepting, as we apparently must, that there is little prospect of a
publishing moratorium, all, even the idolaters, must always be hoping to
encounter something new or at least mildly surprising, something off the
beaten track -- especially when they are expected yet once more to read
the story of the poet's life.  Several full-length biographies have
appeared over the last five years. They have their differences of
emphasis, their particular interpretations; they may, occasionally,
adduce a new scrap of information. They may even display a certain
refreshing animus against their subject, as when Katherine Duncan-Jones,
who titled her biography "Ungentle Shakespeare" (2001), dwells on the
poet's questionable conduct in matters sexual and financial. She thinks
it very doubtful that any Elizabethans, "even Shakespeare, were what
might now be called 'nice,' " and is generally skeptical where others
are credulous.

Still, whether one's attitude is reverent or cynical, the same basic
body of fact (larger than many suppose) is available to every biographer
and cannot be ignored.  Originality lies in the manner of presentation.
  "Shakespeare for All Time," by Stanley Wells, and "Shakespeare," by
Michael Wood, are essentially biographies, but each is presented in
rather unusual packaging. Wells is an old hand, who should not mind
being called the doyen of modern British Shakespeare scholarship.  The
27 books and editions credited to him in this volume all concern
Shakespeare or his contemporaries. They include the enormous and
laborious Oxford edition of the complete works, an enterprise over which
he presided for years. (He provides a modest account of its origin and
development in the present volume; one day he might want to tell that
tale in more exciting, less modest detail.)

Wells is the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, vice chairman
of the Royal Shakespeare Theater, the man newspapers and television
studios call first if they feel they need something authoritative on
Shakespeare. He is a benign presence in what is not always a placid
environment.  Not everybody agrees with him about everything, but few
will deny that he has an indisputable right to produce yet another book
on Shakespeare whenever he feels like it.  Wood, whose book has Wells's
blessing emblazoned on its jacket, is a different proposition
altogether. He comes into the Shakespeare world from the outside, having
achieved celebrity by making many successful film and television
documentaries, largely on historical subjects.  He has now brought his
unusual talents for research and exposition to the subject of
Shakespeare and his times. The primary purpose was a short series of
television programs, and this book is a byproduct of that enterprise.
Given that the aim of the author was to produce prime-time television,
the results are bound to be more exciting, or at any rate more
tendentious, than the kind of thing we could properly expect from Wells.

Wells's approach is nevertheless unusual in one respect: he devotes
rather less than half his book to a run-through of the biography. The
rest of it deals with the "for all time" part of the title, though he
really means "up to now": the growth of the Shakespeare legend, the
poet's reputation in the ages of Garrick and Romanticism, his
ever-thriving career over the last two centuries and more, not only in
Britain but pretty well everywhere. The subject calls for, and gets,
abundant, handsome and instructive illustration. The book is therefore
something of a hybrid, the biography amiable, the afterlife placidly
illuminating and useful.

The main point on which Wells and Wood disagree as to interpretation of
fact happens to be one that is at present exercising many other
scholars. Very crudely, the question is this: Was Shakespeare a
Catholic? His father was born about 1530, when no other option was
available; he was later fined for recusancy (failure to attend the
reformed church) and seems to have owned a copy of a devotional work (a
"Spiritual Testament") distributed in England by Jesuit missionaries in
the 1580's. Might such a man, and his Catholic wife, not have had a
Catholic son? To Wood and others this is a matter of great importance.
Wells takes a judicious look at the matter, pointing out that although
John Shakespeare could well have been, as many others undoubtedly were,
a "crypto-Catholic," he had his children baptized and was himself buried
according to the Anglican rite. He accepted public offices which were
not open to Catholics, and, as an official of the Stratford community,
oversaw the defacement of pre-Reformation images in the Guild Chapel and
the sale of papistical copes and vestments. And Wells believes that the
father's own explanation of nonattendance at church was the true one: he
was afraid of exposing himself to arrest for debt.  Wells then goes on
to deny that William was Catholic, finding nothing to suggest it in the
writings. He therefore has no time for the consequences that some attach
to the idea of young William as a fervent adherent of the old faith.
These are just the kind of thing that Wood enjoys.  Was the boy taken
(possibly by a Jesuit missionary) to Lancashire (like Warwickshire, a
county known for its Catholic sympathies) to become (perhaps under the
alias William Shakeshafte) a tutor, perhaps an actor, in a great
Catholic household? Might he have gone to London with his master's
acting troupe? Is that the solution of the old problem of the "Lost
Years" between Shakespeare's last appearance in Stratford, at the
christening of his twins, and the first notice of his presence in London
in 1592?  Wells will have none of this; Wood, though unusually cautious
about William Shakeshafte, is convinced that Shakespeare's parents had
remained Catholics. The connection of his mother, Mary Arden, with the
important and certainly Catholic Arden family, though rather remote,
suggests that the Shakespeare family belonged to a minority that might,
as the Elizabethan anti-Catholic reign of terror developed, have caused
them to be accused of treason. If Wood's book has a central theme it is
this.  Scraps of evidence, however flimsy and conjectural, are marshaled
in its favor. The priest who baptized Shakespeare, though not a
Catholic, had Catholic sympathies. Shakespeare's parents' marriage was
celebrated with a nuptial Mass (but this was during the reign of the
Catholic Queen Mary); and the poet's own virtually shotgun wedding was
celebrated not at Stratford (where the vicar at the time was a strong
Protestant) but at Temple Grafton, five miles from Stratford, where he
just might have found a priest willing to offer a Roman Mass. There
seems to be no reason whatever to believe this except the pressure of a
keen desire for it to be true.

. . .


http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/11/books/review/11KERMODT.html?ex=1074740594&ei=1&en=a48e763425ead7f4

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