A Portrait of the Artist as a Papist?

Book cover
Shakespeareby By Michael WoodBasic Books/Perseus Press. 252p $45

A professor I knew used to say Hamlet seems befuddled at times because he is a Renaissance man in a medieval world. Over the years, I saw that the reverse was equally true. Hamlet knows the new philosophy but is troubled by new customs and friends who betray old loyalties; he fails at playing the Machiavelli and finds peace not in plots but providence. At times, he seems a medieval man in a Renaissance world. Perhaps Hamlet is simply caught between two worlds, unsure where to be (or not to be).

Such is the claim that the English historian and filmmaker Michael Wood makes for Shakespeare in general in his sterling biography, a complement to a BBC series enlivened by excellent illustrations of the Elizabethan era. The text does not pale by comparison, for Wood assiduously shows how Shakespeare’s life was framed by earthshaking philosophical and religious transitions. One passage encapsulates Wood’s case: If he had been born in his parents’ generation, two or three decades earlier, his mind might not have been open to the challenges of the modern world; a few decades later and he would not have been in touch with the old world view, the imaginal universe of the medieval Christian civilization of England and Europe.


Wood almost makes it Catholic civilization. Shakespeare’s father, John, did a halfhearted job whitewashing images of saints off the wall of a Stratford chapel; over many decades, he avoided Protestant Easter services, when Anglican communion was noted. The families of his mother and his wife were linked to recusant Catholics. Wood also notes, with enough documentation to make it intriguing, that Shakespeare had Jesuit connections. One teacher, Simon Hunt, left Stratford shortly after instructing Shakespeare, going to Douai in Belgium to join the Society of Jesus. Other Jesuits known to Shakespeare and his relatives or associates include a schoolmate and distant kinsman, Robert Debdale, as well as the more famous Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet (both sources for passages in Macbeth). Wood uses police and torture records as sources for detailed descriptions of their sad fates, which were, if possible, worse than one would imagine.

But what does it all mean? A Catholic connection feels stretched, as if Wood or the BBC felt they needed to publicize the series as groundbreaking. Fortunately, Wood makes a subtler case. As ever in things Shakespearean, the play’s the thing. As Wood notes, Henry IV Part One was a hit and Falstaff an immediate household name, in part because he struck a chord of nostalgia for the lost medieval world. As Wood notes, nostalgia infects As You Like It, in the figure of the manservant Adam, played on stage by Shakespeare himself. For ancient householding, Lear pleads, reason not the need. And who, without respect for custom, could tolerate Sir Toby Belch? Shakespeare was not Catholic, but he eschewed reformation.

Given Wood’s long treatment of the sonnets, the Dark Lady and other old chestnuts, I wanted more of this. Yes, the sonnets deserve attention, and as the cause of Shakespeare’s midlife crisis, Wood provocatively nominates one Emilia Bassano, a Venetian of Moorish and Jewish descent. But Wood knows that Shakespeare was a dramatist more than a poet, or if quibble we must, a poetic dramatist. (Do I bite my thumb at you, sir? No. But I do bite my thumb.) As Wood shows, Shakespeare did not realize his lifelong ambition of restoring his family fortunes and retiring to Stratford by publishing poems. Perspective is lost when the poems are overstressed.

Similarly, Wood hits a triple (not a home run) on another subject, Shakespeare’s theatre associations: where he lived, where he worked and who befriended him among The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men under James II). Chums included the famous Burbages and clowns like Robert Armin (comic relief in the plays is not just a technique but a shop necessity). There were also John Hemminges and Henry Condell, who published the first folioan unprecedented tribute to any dramatist at that time. Wood’s discussion of Ben Jonson’s ambivalent friendship is also excellent.

But Wood could have engaged those who say an actor could not have written the plays. He acknowledges that belief in conspiracy is in vogue now. Although it started in the United States (in what Time magazine has christened Bardgate), it now is popular in England as well, seducing even major actors to blaspheme against their own profession. Any popular life of Shakespeare should be assertive in refuting it. Wood’s isn’t.

For example, take Shakespeare’s schooling. Wood shows that Stratford’s grammar schoola term the conspirators equate with your local P.S. 24was in fact a fine Renaissance academy that indoctrinated him in classicist learning and languages. In an age when few people of any kind were schooled at all, it was the equalif not, in literature, the superiorof Harvard today. Wood covers this, but does not emphasize how much it dispels myths about an unlearned actor.

Similarly, take the issue of Shakespeare’s sources. Conspirators say that only an aristocrat could have written so well of courts. Wood shows that Shakespeare learned all he needed of courts from Plutarch, Holinshed and other writers whose works he ransacked. But what are the sources of his scenes of lowlife? Wood praises the comic prose that Shakespeare used to animate such scenes. He knows one does not create this from books; it derives not from the schoolhouse or great house, but from the alehouse and bawdyhouse. The beautifully vulgar prose refutes any conspiracy. But Wood simply leaves the case implicit.

To be fair, I may worry about Bardgate because I live in Washington, where nothing so deranges journalistic judgment as the word conspiracy. (It was a local former C.I.A. man, Charlton Ogburn, who put conspiracy on the map with his The Mysterious William Shakespeare [1983]; he has many media followers here.) Wood’s book is dandy, but in my view he has entered the ring while ignoring the bull.

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