The title of Paul Menzer’s new biography of Shakespeare – the first in the Arden Shakespeare Insights series designed to support the forthcoming Arden Fourth Series – alludes to one of the weightier tomes in Shakespearean biographical writing. Indeed, S. Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life was so hefty that it spawned a less back-straining condensation, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Menzer’s William Shakespeare: A Brief Life continues the streamlining trajectory, but also plays on the brevity of Shakespeare’s own life (dying at 52, Menzer muses, when most middle-aged men are getting a divorce or writing a Shakespeare biography) and the brevity of the evidence padded out in the more intimidating tomes. This new biography does not, refreshingly, attempt to make bold new claims or claim a revision of the previously known facts. It is, however, interested in the stories that we tell about Shakespeare’s life, and what they say about us.
This is, in fact, a spiritual sequel to Menzer’s earlier Anecdotal Shakespeare (though narratively a prequel, as the anecdotes about Shakespeare’s life precede those of the performance history recounted in the earlier book), and extends Menzer’s punning praxis into the more reverential haunts of life writing. For those looking for Menzer’s customary punning wit, there will be no disappointments, but it’s important to recognize that making jokes is a serious business, especially when the seriousness with which many take Shakespeare itself becomes quite funny. Menzer never allows a potential moment of wordplay to go by (nor did Shakespeare), but punning is critical to the book’s method: by exploring and contextualizing the words used to articulate Shakespeare’s life, both in his own time and by his early biographers, Menzer draws attention to the life itself as artful construction. That is, this is emphatically not a documentary history of Shakespeare’s life; it is, however, an exploration of what the words we use to talk about Shakespeare’s life mean, whether intentional or not.
The book begins by avoiding hagiography; it starts at the moment of his death, and notes that ‘no-one noticed’. Indeed, where biographers have often papered over the gaps in the documentary evidence, Menzer makes these gaps his material; the true ‘lost years’, in many ways, are those years between 1616 and 1623 during which Shakespeare seems to have been barely revived, reprinted, or commemorated, especially in comparison to other dramatists such as Francis Beaumont. One repeated offer that the book makes is that Shakespeare was, perhaps, an Elizabethan dramatist who survived into the Jacobean period and who was already becoming less relevant to his cultural moment; the book’s resistance to a superstar narrative comes from a recontextualization of the evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was, perhaps, not just normal, but perhaps even mundanely so. Similarly, in pursuing context by not just looking at banns and legal records but also at the language of recent and surrounding cases (e.g. that the second-best bed seems to have been a recurrent gift to one’s spouse in the period), Menzer takes many of the best or most outrageous claims about Shakespeare and normalizes them.
None of this is to take away from the importance of Shakespeare, and Menzer indulges throughout in qualitative evaluation of the plays and poems (though also contextualized; he’s happy to accept that Shakespeare wrote at least a dozen great plays, as well as some other ones), while also acknowledging them as artworks. This is not a biography which depends on the sonnets as autobiographical, but it’s also not a biography which denies the potential of those poems for riffing on the poet’s own name and life. Again, this is where Menzer’s punning-as-praxis comes into its own; the playfulness with an author who is playful with his own name renders the life itself semantic, a play on and with words, that is fitting for a man who himself spent his life constructing lives through words. This leads to one of Menzer’s most important and, I think, correct claims in the book: that to look for individual avatars for Shakespeare within the plays is foolish, but to note the concerns to which he returns might be more revealing. As Menzer points out, after James came to the throne, the centre of gravity in Shakespeare’s plays shifts from the concerns of young people – Olivia and Hamlet are children, not in terms of age, but in terms of their relationship to lost parents – to the concerns of older people, and one does not need to apply biographical readings to any one character to adduce the maturing of focus.
But while Menzer’s readings of the plays are always welcome, the interest here is in the surrounding contexts. This is a biography which looks outward, which fills in the blanks by sketching the space around the silhouette. As Menzer did so expertly with his book on the American Shakespeare Center – which reflects in great detail on the history of Staunton, VA – so too does Menzer find potential in Stratford-upon-Avon (jump on the A40 and drive until you’re angry), the Avon itself becoming a metaphor for Shakespeare’s progression from the town, and the physical distances of the town becoming stand-ins for an understanding of the intersections of education, work, domestic life, and play. Menzer has no interest in recuperating Shakespeare as a family man (he draws attention to the tendency of critics to try to excuse his philandering in London by calling his wife ‘Anne Hathaway’ rather than ‘Anne Shakespeare’), but he does also argue that Stratford remained critical to Shakespeare’s life and identity. Indeed, property is a recurrent concern of this biography, both in the sense of bricks-and-mortar (or early modern equivalents) and in terms of literary properties. Menzer sees Shakespeare as a man almost boringly defined by acquisitions, in a way that has frustrated biographers keen to separate Shakespeare from more material concerns. Stratford may be the misplaced focus of the authorship question (Menzer twice notes that ‘anti-Stratfordians’ seem to take aim at the town, which is bizarre as it’s the one thing that is most demonstrably there), but for Menzer it’s central to understanding a man who, pointedly, was not buried in Westminster Abbey with so many of his peers.
The book covers a lot of ground, but ends in the ground – or rather, with what may not be in the ground. Noting the occasional alignment of 23 April – only potentially Shakespeare’s birthday, but definitely his deathday – with Easter Sunday, Menzer amuses himself by musing on the apparent absence of Shakespeare’s head from the grave in Holy Trinity Church, wondering what we would find if we rolled back the stone. But this also becomes a final set of punning metaphors for the project of biography itself: looking for Shakespeare’s head where it isn’t. As Menzer notes, with the unremarkable end of Shakespeare’s life comes the remarkable beginning of Shakespeare’s afterlife, an afterlife that has very often wrestled with how to reconcile a pretty ordinary life with an extraordinary legacy. This book – lightly written, laugh-out-loud funny, but with a rewarding and often moving empathy for a man whose life and work may not have been perfect, especially in their own time – is a timely reminder that the words used to describe a life are themselves as playful and shifting as the words of the man they’re writing about; a lively brief, if you will.