You may remember that last year the period flick Anonymous tried to assign the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. What’s most galling about such conspiracies is that they never factor in the element that really matters: talent. A decently educated, middle-class country lad happened to have a vast, intuitive grasp of language and the slipperiness of meaning and sound; a natural affinity for moral ambiguity; a tragicomic sense of life; and an ability to make the cognitive leap from the quotidian to the cosmic. Where’s the genius conspiracy? I suppose it’s implicit in the constant flow of textual studies, but Being Shakespeare is one of the few notable attempts to marry the scant paper trail of the Bard’s life with relevant passages from his work.
Shockingly little is known of Shakespeare’s biography, and scholar Jonathan Bate is careful not to make up any facts or interpret documents too freely. Instead, he uses a restrained new-historicist approach and allows the warm, plummy-voiced Simon Callow to guide us from young Will’s pastoral boyhood in Stratford-upon-Avon to his brilliant career in London theater of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Bate takes his structuring cue from Jaques’s “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It—Shakespeare loosely modeled through the lenses schoolboy, lover, soldier and so forth. Any account of Shakespeare the man is hypothetical and deeply limited, but Callow and Bate make it worth the speculation. (And you will clamor to see Callow’s complete Falstaff as well.)
Being Shakespeare neatly combines two worthy traditions: the solo Bard-athon and the literary biography. John Gielgud and Ian McKellen have excelled in the former, and authors such as Stephen Greenblatt have shone in the latter. It’s a joy to see the two approaches presented in tandem with understated grace. Ultimately, we’ll never know who Shakespeare was; that’s what the plays are for.—David Cote
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