Book Reviews

The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography

Marsha S. Robinson

A collection of 25 essays, The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography (eds. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, Cambridge UP, 2015) was written as part of the international commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This richly researched and innovative work eschews the birth to death trajectory of the conventional biography. Instead, these essays, “like a handful of pebbles” cast in the water, form a plethora of “concentric circles” that echo the different “kinds of circles that emanate from the center of Shakespeare’s life and help to shape its peripheries” (329). Independent accounts of at least one member of the circles to which Shakespeare belonged, these essays recover Shakespeare’s place in the lives of others and his place in theirs.

The first circle is titled “Family.”  These essays evoke a transitional moment in history– a “shift in wealth, education and opportunity which marked the later Tudor age” (14) exemplified in the record of four generations of the Shakespeare family. Specific documents as well as an investigation of the brogger’s trade in Tudor England ground David Fallow’s revisionary essay, “His father John Shakespeare.” Fallow challenges the well-known narrative of financial adversity.  Our poet, he argues, was the son of a prosperous brogger (a wool broker) and a money-lender, a shrewd, self-made man who secured land, houses and even a title for his family. Informed speculation must necessarily supplement the absence of records about Shakespeare’s family life.  For example, in her essay on Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, Katherine Scheil revisits the record, uncovering links between the Shakespeare and Hathaway families. This information normalizes what is often represented as a clandestine marriage and inspires her conjecture that the marriage between William and Anne may have been arranged.  Scheil fashions a New Place “closer” to London than we often imagine, alive with news of Anne’s husband’s successful London career.

The second “circle” is comprised of Shakespeare’s neighbors and friends.  These essays create an interactive account of his developing reputation. Although Ben Jonson ultimately identified himself as an intimate friend of Shakespeare–“I loved the man” (193)–David Riggs’ nuanced essay charts Shakespeare’s “evolving rivalry” with Jonson (191). Contrasting Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with Jonson’s classical comedy, Riggs shows that the “two playwrights were learning from one another” (187).  Jonson’s dismissal of Shakespeare as a popular writer is countered by his tribute to Shakespeare in the First Folio– “a remarkable act of critical recognition” (197).  In an essay entitled “Richard Barnfield, John Weever, William Basse and other encomiasts,” Andrew Hadfield places Shakespeare in a circle of poets who clearly knew, read and imitated one another’s work. He argues that these poets unfavorably compared the work of a very popular early Shakespeare to that of poet Edmund Spenser. Lovers of Shakespeare may be surprised to learn that for these poets his famously “sweet” Ovidian style with its “combination of beauty, sex and violence” (209) earned him the reputation of an underachieving “skillful lightweight” (200).

The discussion of reputation continues in the third section of the book,Colleagues and patrons.” In a quest to recover for the 21st century reader “a Shakespeare before ‘Shakespeare’” (242), Andy Kesson provides a revisionary reading of dramatist Robert Greene’s famous attack on the “upstart crow.” Citing a passage of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, he situates Shakespeare as a “newcomer,” “an oddity” to first generation established dramatists (237). The essays in this section bring us closer to our author by examining the creative interaction of an artist with his colleagues. In a discussion of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Bart Van Es, for example, explores “the transformative effect” both Will Kempe and Robert Armin had upon his style (262). Shakespeare not only worked in tandem with great actors. Recent research has expanded and complicated the record of his dramatic collaborations. Emma Smith’s essay on Thomas Middleton, which identifies him as both Shakespeare’s collaborator and reviser, details the differences in genre and psychology which set the two playwrights apart, and explains the various modes of collaboration in which these dramatists engaged. Essays on collaborators George Wilton and John Fletcher further qualify the narrative of a single and singular genius, portraying Shakespeare as a writer who engaged in mutually enhancing partnerships with his fellow dramatists.

This compelling collection of essays is distinguished by its fertile re-examination of the documentary record.  Its intersecting “circles” generate fresh perspectives, inviting us to imagine new narratives. Moreover, the collection holds out the promise of new discoveries for readers in search of Shakespeare.




Categories: Book Reviews

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