I’ve been celebrating William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday this week by reading Lois Potter’s new book: The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography, just out from Blackwell’s. This book was flying off the publisher’s table at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Boston over Easter, and with good reason: it is compelling account of Shakespeare as a writer and a man of the theatre.
The figure of Shakespeare that emerges from Potter’s biography is above all of a craftsman. Her Shakespeare is meticulous, hard-working, with a good ear, a capacious memory, and keen alertness to potential material, both through the books available to him and through the thriving theatrical scene in which he worked. Potter emphasizes his developing skill in poetic language, pacing, plotting, and creating opportunities for his actors.
Two examples of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship stood out for me: Potter discusses Shakespeare’s apparent revision to Romeo’s death speech, as preserved, probably accidentally, in the second Quarto of the play. That text prints two versions of the speech: one the relatively short version of Quarto 1, the other a much more prolonged scene that shows “Shakespeare’s developing awareness of the importance of taking time over certain passages” (196), providing the “audience an agonizing prolongation of the hope that Juliet will wake in time to prevent him from drinking the poison” (197).
The other is the more speculative but extremely intriguing suggestion that Shakespeare may have reworked an old version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, to provide Richard Burbage with an acting vehicle that would stand up against the revival of The Spanish Tragedy performed by Edward Alleyn upon his return to the stage in 1600. Here Potter shows insight into one of the secrets of Shakespeare’s success: his ability to write plays that showcased actors’ talents: “Above all, perhaps, Hamlet is a composite of everything that Burbage did best, which is why he is everything that an actor wants to play, and everything than an audience wants an actor to be” (281).
The final chapter – “Myth and ‘Genius’”– discusses the tendency of discussions of Shakespeare to polarize around inflated claims of Shakespeare’s greatness and iconoclastic debunkings of such myths. Shakespeare’s much-lauded enormous vocabulary turns out to be a result primarily of his longevity as a writer and the number of different subjects upon which he wrote (Holger Syme’s blog has a good summary of the issue). Yet in an era in which many of his contemporaries died young of violence, illness, and penury or otherwise sank into oblivion, this productivity over many years is itself extraordinary. Potter concludes by suggesting that in the end it is Shakespeare’s “theatrical instinct” that distinguishes him: his plays show his expertise in “how to use suspense and surprise, how to orchestrate vivid characterizations and styles of speech, how to give the actors their opportunities” (439).
Skill, then, becomes the mediating term between “myth”and “genius.” This is not to underestimate the skill of other dramatists; Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is perhaps the most brilliantly plotted and executed play in the period, and Gary Taylor has been lobbying hard for Thomas Middleton. And as Potter points out, placing Shakespeare more firmly within the context of such other writers effectively deflates many of the spurious claims that Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him.
What are you doing to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday?