Is there a Shakespearean lover who does not know that there is precious little actual information about Shakespeare and as a result there are all these theories speculating about who he really was? I’ve read a few of them, and I’ve always considered these to be crap that show us more about the enthusiast of the theory than they do about the Shakespeare. I have read many books about Shakespeare, but none have provoked a more mixed and reaction in me than Greenblatts’. There are some great weaknesses. Read on.
As I was reading this what came into my mind was that celebrated statement, I think by AL Rowse that he was prepared to stake his reputation on the claim that all the Dark Lady from the sonnets 127-154 was in fact Emilia Lanier. Never mind that it’s never been clear that Lanier was a dark lady, let alone the Dark Lady – or indeed, whether or not there was a real Dark Lady at all in real life. By Jove, what if Shakespeare actually made the whole thing up? What if Greenblatt wanted to give Rowse a run for his money when it comes to reinventing Shakespeare’s life? I’m quite astonished that it found a publisher at all let alone that someone paid close to a million dollars to have it published. I’m not talking about being littered with spelling mistakes or grammatical errors; the worst is the utter lack of scholarly accuracy (e.g., Shakespeare hating Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s Anti-Jewishness, the meeting in Lancashire between Edmund Campion and the teenage Shakespeare, Falstaff as being a tribute both to Robert Greene and to Shakespeare's own father, the attempt at simplifying and normalizing the complex sexuality of Shakespeare, etc.). The level of 'dumbing down' in literary scholarship these days is shocking. Being sufficiently anal-retentive I did actually finish it and found, that it was Greenblatting as usual and, i.e., he managed to stretch it out to almost to 500 pages without adding a single extra worthwhile fact. Reading this makes me a firm believer on the importance of reading Shakespeare through his poetry and plays. What I’ve just read is Shakespeare-a-la-Greenblatt. When a book's chief claim is to far-fetching conclusions, it’s pointless to bash it by the standards of biographical scholarship, but I just felt I had to say my piece. We still not really know if there was really a lady in the first place as I’ve said above. I’m much better off reading and enjoying Shakespeare’s wonderful lines so full of tenderness and feeling, which gave the world the glory of those lines eternal. If characters in his plays were representations, male or female, of true personalities what does it matters if there was "a dark lady" or “a dark boy”? Shakespeare still gloriously reigns.
If someone asks me what biography of Shakespeare I’d profoundly recommend that has no fabrications, no romantic overtones, but just has the facts of the life and afterlife, it’s not this one. It’s “Soul of the Age” by Jonathan Bate. Bate is really prudent in his choice of what to take into account Shakespeare-wise.
I only found one single virtue in the book: its overwhelming enthusiasm. Alas, enthusiasm hardly justifies yet one more biography of Shakespeare, especially when there are more rigorous, and more well-documented books on his life as the ones I mentioned. If you’re a noob Shakespeare-wise, go on reading his plays, and practice the healthy habit of thinking for yourself.
Until a time machine is invented, Shakespeare will remain an enigma. I have always got the impression he was a man who lived a double life. He had to, as he “was” a Catholic and had to keep that one quiet and not to stir up problems (this is me, not Greenblatting, but Manuel Antãoing…).