Shakespeare Faces Retirement

by David Bevington

an one learn or surmise anything significant about Shakespeare's own life from his writings? The film Shakespeare in Love has recently brought the question into focus, even though--or perhaps especially because--that film deliberately plays fast and loose with what we know about Shakespeare's life. The film more or less accurately places him in London as a young man, eager to succeed in the theater, keenly aware of the success of his great rival, Christopher Marlowe. This Shakespeare lives apart from his wife and children, having left them in Stratford. And thereby hangs a tale. This Shakespeare has a glorious affair with a young woman named Viola, after a succession of less romantic trysts with Rosaline and no doubt others. Is there any accuracy in this? We don't know, really, other than the possibly biographical circumstance of an unhappy love relationship with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets and a deeply passionate friendship for a well-born young man whom the Sonnets address--a circumstance ignored by the film, interestingly; with so much happy hetero sex to explore in the relationship of Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, the filmmakers were not about to show their Shakespeare falling in love with the Earl of Southampton. They didn't need to, in any case, since the Fiennes-Paltrow relationship itself provides enough cross-dressing (Paltrow as Thomas Kent) and switching of sexual roles in the dialogue that the film is able to play with gender ambiguity without turning to the more disarming relationship portrayed in the Sonnets.

At any rate, it's not an outrageous guess that Shakespeare had love relationships in London that amounted to a betrayal of his marriage vows. There is even a contemporary story about this--a story that has no evidence to back it up and is inherently suspicious because it is a tale type applicable to lots of situations, but nonetheless interesting to anyone curious to speculate if Shakespeare's wonderful writings about falling in love had any basis in personal experience other than his presumed courtship of Anne Hathaway many years back in time. According to an anecdote related by one Edward Curle, a student at the Middle Temple, to his roommate Sir John Manningham, who jotted the item down in his Diary of 1602, Shakespeare happened one day to overhear Richard Burbage making an assignation with a young lady in the theater audience. Shakespeare took note of the time and place and, proceeding there in advance of the appointment, "was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came." When a message was sent up to their room that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused a message to be returned that William the Conqueror preceded Richard the Third.¹ If you watched Shakespeare in Love carefully, you would have noticed that this alleged incident is referred to. At the very least, Shakespeare and Burbage appear, in the film, to be sharing the attentions of Rosaline.

The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love offered a fanciful version of Shakespeare's early career.
The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love offered a fanciful version of Shakespeare's early career.

The film's most playful and outrageous suggestion connecting autobiography with Shakespeare's literary output has to do with the creation of Romeo and Juliet. Here the film imagines, in wonderful detail, that the story of two star-crossed lovers comes to the writing-block-suffering Shakespeare in vivid installments in the form of a series of actual experiences. He crashes a party at the elegant home of Viola's parents, thinking that he is looking for "Thomas Kent," and there beholds the lovely Viola in a dance; they touch hands; her kinsmen and the rival wooer are offended. Shakespeare climbs a trellis in an attempt to reach her from the garden in back of her house. Filled with the rapture of this dangerous and exciting evening, he scurries back to his digs and writes it all down. One of the great jokes in the film, indeed, is that this Shakespeare gets all his ideas and his memorable phrases from his friends and from Viola. "That's a good title," he'll say, when Edward Alleyn suggests "Romeo and Juliet" instead of "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." Viola gives him lines verbatim as they make love. Here again, of course, the film is playing adroitly with a common and not inaccurate perception of Shakespeare, that he did borrow unashamedly. He was a magpie, stealing not just plots but words and phrases. Well, then, why not suppose that the plot and characters of Romeo and Juliet came to him in the way the film imagines?

The notion that Romeo and Juliet came to Shakespeare through the events of his life is more than just a marvelous joke (and one, I may say, that is likely to mislead lots of people). It is plausible because that's how we think of fiction in the post-Romantic world. Writing as autobiography is very dominantly the mode of creation with which we are familiar. Yet anyone knowledgeable about the circumstances of Shakespeare's career will know that the story of Romeo and Juliet came to him from a long narrative poem by Arthur Brooke called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, written first in Italian by Bandell and later in English by Arthur Brooke (in 1562, two years before Shakespeare was born). "Bandell" is the Italian Matteo Bandello, whose Novelle of 1554 contained essentially the whole story that Brooke and then Shakespeare borrowed. Behind Bandello were earlier versions by Luigi da Porto (1530), Masuccio of Salerno (1476), and on back to Xenophon's Ephesiaca of the fifth century A.D. The story of Romeo and Juliet was handed to Shakespeare more or less intact. This is not to say that he did not have his own personal reasons for wanting to borrow and magnificently adapt the story, but it does pour cold water on any naive equation of autobiography with writing. The film is aware of its own outrageousness, to be sure, and is in my view a brilliant success. My point here is that it brings into renewed focus the question of what the connection might be. The film is, on one level, a fantasy of our desire to know more about Shakespeare the man and a distinctly modern fantasy that assumes writing to be a form of personal expression.

Seven ages of Shakespeare

Can one connect the life and the biography, as we're accustomed to do, say, with Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw or James Joyce, not just to satisfy prurient curiosity but to make connections, as Michael Holroyd or Richard Ellmann do, that enable us to understand how great works of literature are generated?² Two great factors militate against our doing so. First, despite our knowing more about Shakespeare than we do about almost any other writer of the Renaissance, we know so little about his personal life. We have no letters, no record of his feelings about his wife or children or even friends, though it is possible to intuit some sense of his artistic rivalry with Ben Jonson. Second, Shakespeare did not transform biographical experiences into art in the way that Joyce appears to have done, or Tolstoy. Generally he took stories that others had written and gave them dramatic form. Ever since Keats, the critical fashion has been to credit Shakespeare with an incredible "negative capability"--that is, a protean insight into the lives and emotions of other people. Shakespeare did not have to kill a king to write Macbeth or murder his wife to write Othello. He was not an autobiographical writer in the post-Romantic sense, just as Chaucer was not, either. The mode of artistic creation in the late medieval and early modern period was to subsume the self into a great subject rather than living off one's individual experiences. This is true in the visual arts as well.

Indeed, biographical interpretation of Shakespeare's works earned a bad reputation in the early twentieth century and for good reasons. Once German philological criticism had done much to straighten out the chronology of Shakespeare's writing career, nineteenth-century scholars and critics proceeded to analyze that career according to their own Romantic conceptions of art and biography. As Marjorie Garber has shown, they needed to invent a Shakespeare who led a life illustrative of the transcendent status so abundantly manifested in his art.³ Coleridge, appalled at the prospect that the Sonnets might reveal something untoward in Shakespeare's biography and yet caught up in the notion that his writings must be deeply expressive of his own sturm und drang, went into contortions arguing that all the Sonnets but one are in fact addressed to a young woman, not a young man.4

Elsewhere, scholars like Edward Dowden looked to Shakespeare's life for clues about the periodization of his career.5 Why especially did he turn to writing tragedies around the time of Julius Caesar (1599) and Hamlet (c. 1601), to be followed in relentless succession by Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, and why did he then turn in the years 1606-13 to the writing of bittersweet romances like Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest? Was the move toward tragedy triggered by the death of his son, Hamnet, in 1596 at the age of eleven-and-a-half or of his father in 1601? Did the death of his brother Edmund in 1607 have anything to do with this tragic "period" even if too late for most of the plays in that group?

The naivete of the question is evident in the contradictions one can immediately perceive. The death of Hamnet in 1596 must have been a terrible blow, especially since Hamnet was Shakespeare's only son, and since the Sonnets among his other works suggest an absorption in the whole question of succession by a son; and yet some of Shakespeare's most poignant depictions of the deaths of sons (young Talbot in 1 Henry VI, for example, or the father who has killed his son and a son who has killed his father in 3 Henry VI, or the murder of the young princes in Richard III) precede the death of Hamnet by several years. Conversely, the years 1596 and afterward saw Shakespeare writing some of his most successful comedies, like Much Ado about Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, along with the history plays about Prince Hal. These plays hardly seem the product of a man brooding about the death of his son.

The presumed shift from tragedy to romance in the years 1606-13 is no less easy to explain in biographical terms--too easy, in fact. Some criticism in this vein has been excessive enough to give the whole enterprise a black eye.6 Dislike for such biographical interpretation was reinforced, in the 1920s and '30s and afterward, by the formalist approaches of the so-called New Criticism and indeed of the Chicago School.

Have we gone too far, however, in dismissing the idea simply because it was so grossly abused? More recently, psychological criticism has managed to broach this complex subject of autobiographical elements in Shakespeare's writing by noting, first, that his creative life does lead through something like the "seven ages" of humankind that Jaques describes in As You Like It. To a significant extent, the plays of the first half of Shakespeare's career are comedies and history plays--that is, celebrations of falling in love and of entering upon manhood. Shakespeare was in his middle to late twenties or even early thirties as he wrote plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice. His best history plays, which could have made other choices of theme and emphasis, focus on the coming of age of Prince Hal who was to be King Henry V. Moreover, these crucial rites of passage are seen from a decidedly male perspective.

The young men in Shakespeare's romantic comedies are seriously flawed in their inconstancy, in their macho need to prove their manhood (consider how Demetrius and Lysander try to kill each other in A Midsummer Night's Dream), their debilitating jealousies, their self-destructive impulses to suspect the worst of the women they desire. Typically, they are saved from themselves by the forgiveness of the clever, teasing, yet loyal young women.

Does this tell us anything about Shakespeare as a man? Who's to say? Yet it is perhaps significant that concurrently, in the late 1590s, he chose to dramatize the coming to maturity of Prince Hal in a way that stresses the uneasy relationship between a young man and his overbearing father. Hal becomes his father's son and ultimately internalizes what he has learned from that father, but it is a lesson learned the hard way through rebellion and alienation. Such considerations resonate for us poignantly when we think of the death of Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, in 1596. Moreover, this process of maturation, as Shakespeare tells it, sets aside the pursuit of women almost entirely. Prince Hal has no sex life until, in Henry V, he conquers France and is handed the daughter of the French king on a plate, as it were, as the spoils of war.

Male maturation in the romantic comedies of the 1590s often involves a strategy in which the young male protagonist, such as Orlando in As You Like It or Orsino in Twelfth Night, becomes deeply fond of a person he takes to be a young man but who is "in fact" a young woman--actually, a young male actor playing the part of a young woman disguised as a young man. The relationship quickly becomes frankly self-revealing, since young men can, it seems, unburden themselves more easily to one another than to women. The clear implication is that heterosexuality is hazardous to one's emotional health, especially if one is a male. Women are deliciously desirable, but they are also scary. The romantic solution of Shakespeare's comedies enables the male to make the trajectory across this hazardous terrain with the least possible pain. A seemingly male friendship, a very loving friendship, ripens into heterosexual love when the "friend" turns out to be biologically female, so that heterosexual union is now physically possible. Meantime, in the history plays, sexual maturation on the part of the male has been achieved by another "safe" route, that is to say, by postponing courtship until the young warrior has earned his spurs and has literally achieved the woman by conquest and mastery.

There, if you like, is a composite psychological portrait of love and courtship and male maturation in the plays of Shakespeare's first decade of writing, more or less. It answers no questions about Shakespeare itself, but it does invite intriguing questions as to why he chose these topics at this time in his life and why he gave these distinctive "spins" to the purportedly objective narratives he chose to dramatize.

What, then, about the later plays, from about 1600 until the time of his retirement in 1613 at the ripe old age of forty-nine? People generally aged more quickly in that era than now, owing in part to bad diet, and the fact that Shakespeare died three or so years later, reportedly in bad health, leaves open the prospect that his late plays might well reflect upon the phenomenon of aging. And indeed they do. His characters in the later plays are notably older. Male actors through the centuries have found themselves compelled to traverse the "seven ages of man" in their own careers as Shakespearean actors, portraying Romeo while they are young (David Garrick was an embarrassment when he held on to the role too long), Hamlet and Othello in early middle age, King Lear and Prospero in late years. Think of Lawrence Olivier in his Shakespearean film career, almost feminine in his beauty as a young Orlando back in the 1930s, then a virile Henry V conquering France and wooing Katharine in 1944, and so on to Richard III and Hamlet and Othello, until, when he was fatally ill with cancer, he chose to be filmed as a very frail and white-headed old King Lear.

William Shakespeare: absent father, ambivalent husband?

What is more, the late plays are notably populated by aging males whose wives are unexplainedly absent and who are fixated on their daughters. We never learn why Brabantio in Othello or King Lear or Prospero live without spouses, though the implication is that their wives have died. We do learn that these men, and others like Leontes in The Winter's Tale and King Cymbeline in the play of that name, have turned for emotional sustenance to a daughter--sometimes in frustrated and jealous disappointment, usually with ultimate reassurance that the daughter at least remains loyal. Faced with these intriguing circumstances, I hope you will indulge me if I speculate a bit about what may have seemed to lie ahead for Shakespeare as he approached retirement in about 1613. I think it is possible that we can discern a coherent picture of the artist as aging man, living apart from his wife but also contemplating, with trepidation, a retirement that involved a reunion with that wife in Stratford and also with a daughter whom the writer held particularly dear.

The bard's biography

Some known circumstances of Shakespeare's life do begin to emerge as relevant at this point. Almost without doubt, Shakespeare had found himself trapped in what we would call a "shotgun" marriage at the age of eighteen. The bishop's register of Worcester, the central city of the diocese that includes Stratford-upon-Avon, shows for November 27, 1582, the issue of a bishop's license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. She was eight years his senior; we know this because her tomb, erected when she died in 1623 (seven years after her husband), lists her age at the time of death as sixty-seven. The issuing of this license was irregular. The marrying couple needed to apply for the right to marry after only one reading of the banns, or announcement of a forthcoming marriage, rather than the normal three. The reading of banns was suspended at certain times of the church year, such as the period of Advent leading up to Christmas, and in this case the young couple was in a hurry. Their first child, Susanna, was born on May 26 of the following year, six months almost to the day after the wedding.

We do not know if Shakespeare was the aggressor in the premarital sexual act that led to this hasty marriage and birth or if he felt trapped by an older woman. We do know that he explores the fraught situation repeatedly in his plays, notably in Measure for Measure, the main plot of which hinges on the circumstance of a young woman who has become pregnant before marriage. The mutual guilt of both parties, their uneasiness and resentment about the constraints imposed by law, the question of whether the man or the woman is more morally responsible for such a pregnancy--all is explored with wonderful sensitivity. Marriage is seen as the only solution, but marriage is nothing if not problematic in that play.

We know too that Shakespeare, after begetting two more children in February of 1585, the twins Judith and Hamnet, then had no more children for the 31 remaining years of his nominally married life. Instead, he headed off for London, leaving his family in Stratford. He presumably came home to see them from time to time during breaks in his busy and successful career, and he took care of them handsomely, enabling Susanna and her husband John Hall to buy a fine house when they married in 1607. He seems not to have gotten on well with Thomas Quiney, who married Judith in 1616 shortly before Shakespeare died. By this time Shakespeare had no living son. Hamnet had died in 1596 at the age of eleven. The feelings of a father who had gone to such extraordinary lengths to obtain a coat of arms for his own father can only be imagined. Shakespeare's last will and testament names his wife Anne solely as the recipient of his "second best bed"--a circumstance that sounds churlish, and indeed may well have been so, according to recent examinations of comparable wills during the period. To be sure, Anne was comfortably provided for by common law assurances, but Shakespeare appears not to have gone out of his way to honor her as his wife.

Re-reading the plays

A number of dramatic situations in the late plays deserve, I think, our special consideration in view of what we know about the biographical facts. In Pericles, one of the late romances of somewhat uncertain date, the title figure flees from marriage with the daughter of the wicked King Antiochus once he surmises that king and daughter are incestuous lovers. He subsequently finds happiness in the court of King Simonides and his virtuous daughter Thaisa, but is soon obliged to take a sea voyage during which Thaisa dies giving birth to a daughter and has to be jettisoned overboard to satisfy the sailors' superstitious belief that the sea will not calm itself "till the ship be cleared of the dead" (3.2.48-9). The daughter, Marina, is then left (for insufficiently explained reasons) with Cleon, the governor of Tarsus, and his evil queen, an archetypal wicked stepmother to Marina. Only years later is father reunited with daughter, at which point, directed by the goddess Diana, they journey to Diana's temple at Ephesus to find Thaisa living after all. The family is rejoined, thereby concluding a fantasy that seems strikingly relevant to the circumstances of Shakespeare's own separation from his family and the prospect, sometime around 1613, of a more enduring reunion after his retirement. Pericles is based, like most of Shakespeare's plays, on a source that provides the essential narrative, but we still need to ask why the author chose to dramatize this particular story at this juncture in his life. The fantasy thus created is patently one that idealizes the circumstances of Shakespeare's own life: the wife is not callously abandoned, since Pericles throws her overboard only in a crisis situation. Yet to many students of the play, Pericles is not a blameless hero, and he did throw overboard the body of his wife. The deep depression and near madness from which he is recovered (like King Lear) only by the ministrations of his precious daughter bespeak an ambivalence and guilt for which the story provides no objective correlative. All is put back together by a happy ending in which the beloved daughter, reclaimed first, provides the pathway back to the recovery of a wife who was seemingly lost forever.

If I had more time I would like to talk about Cymbeline and The Tempest, and also about the sometimes fierce rivalry of brothers in Shakespeare (consider for a moment what to make of the astonishing fact that Shakespeare gave the name of his own brother, Edmund, to a central villain in King Lear and did so shortly before, or around the time that, his brother died), but time presses, and so let me turn to what is, I think, my most telling example.

When Shakespeare turns to Robert Greene's Pandosto for the story that becomes The Winter's Tale, written in 1610 or 1611, he adds a new twist to basically the same story of the recovered wife and does so in ways that suggest a strong artistic intent in refashioning his prose source. First of all, the guilt of the husband is more openly acknowledged. King Leontes comes to realize that he has wrongly accused his virtuous queen, Hermione, of adultery with the King's best friend. Haunted at first by jealousy and guilt, left with only a single daughter after the death of his only son (compare the death of Hamnet), whose death is a token of divine anger toward the king, Leontes threatens to kill his newborn daughter but instead orders her abandoned on foreign shore, thus leaving open the possibility of her eventual restoration to him. But Hermione is dead, of grief and shame. The play leaves no doubt that she is dead, for her spirit appears in a dream to the hapless courtier who is instructed to abandon the child to the elements (3.3.15ff.). Only at the very end, as though by miracle, a statue of Hermione that her lady-in-waiting Paulina has sequestered for some sixteen years is made to come to life again. Crucially, for my interpretation, this Hermione has aged; she is the Hermione whom Leontes cruelly abandoned years earlier, older but still beautiful to him now that he finds her again. Like Pygmalion, who prayed to Aphrodite to give him a wife resembling the beautiful statue he has created, Leontes falls in love once again with his wife. If this isn't a fantasy of a man who left his wife years earlier and is now contemplating a new life with her, I just don't know what it is. Yet the statue brought to life, like Pygmalion's statue, is dangerously unstable in any "real" terms; it is a tribute to the artist's ability to shape his own vision, but it has no power to change the facts of life outside the artist's domain (as Prospero also perceives in The Tempest).

It's painful indeed to contemplate whether Leontes' dream of happiness in the company of recovered wife and cherished daughter ever came into being for the play's author. Shakespeare certainly went back to Stratford, where he was to die in three years or so. The evidence strongly suggests that he came out of retirement, to work on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Don't we all tend to do that when we think we're retiring? It would be too easy to attribute Shakespeare's return to a part-time career solely to his disillusionment with Anne as a day-to-day partner. What does seem more clear is that the recurrent image of the daughter in the late plays--Marina, Perdita ("the lost one"), Imogen in Cymbeline, Miranda ("wonder") in The Tempest--is of a younger woman who is a kind of perfected vision of the once-lost wife, a person one loves more dearly than life itself and yet who is sexually off limits as prescribed by the incestuous taboos so vividly present in Pericles. We can hope at any rate that Shakespeare found, in Susanna's company and that of her husband John, the kind of joy that King Lear grasps at in the concluding moments of King Lear only to have that happiness snatched away from him by that old cuckold-maker, Death.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR | David Bevington David Bevington

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1967. His studies include From "Mankind" to Marlowe (1962), Tudor Drama and Politics (1968), and Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture (1985). He is also the editor of Medieval Drama (Houghton Mifflin, 1975); The Bantam Shakespeare (in 29 paperback volumes, 1988); and The Complete Works of Shakespeare (HarperCollins, 1992 -- updated, Longman, 1997), as well as the Oxford 1 Henry IV (1987) the Cambridge Antony and Cleopatra (1990), and the Arden Third Series Troilus and Cressida (1998). He is the senior editor of the Revels Student Editions, and is a senior editor of the Revels Plays and of the forthcoming Cambridge edition of the works of Ben Jonson. He is senior editor of the recently published Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama. With Peter Holbrook he has edited a collection of essays on The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

COPYRIGHT | A version of this article was delivered as the 1999 Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture at the University of Chicago. Copyright 2002 the University of Chicago.

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