William Shakespeare, My New Best Friend?
From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies
Andrew Hadfield, Laboratorio editoriale OA / Dip. LILSI
New trends in biographical writing often make readers imagine that they can understand and directly experience the presence of historical figures as if they knew them intimately. The essay reconsiders Shakespeare’s life and career in the light of these developments arguing that thinking that we can know Shakespeare well invariably leads to ignorance rather than enlightenment because the past can never be quite like the present. The post-romantic model of the lone genius or solitary author stubbornly remains even when critics accept that Shakespeare wrote collaboratively and that his work was created ‘in company’. Examining Shakespeare’s career and the conditions under which his work was produced reveals a writer who was always responsive to prevailing trends and whose writing has to be understood in its context. Shakespeare played an important role within his theatrical companies; worked with other actors; and always had one eye on what his fellow writers — and rivals — were doing, facts that are often obscured but which explain how he became what he was.
It now appears impossible to imagine early modern history without recourse to fiction. In some ways this is a good thing: in times when the arts and humanities are under attack, when science models are being imposed on research into the humanities, and, most importantly, when the current economic hardships are pressurising high achieving students into making choices based on fear for the future, the generation of a measure of interest in a subject that does not have an obvious purpose or the promise of immediate rewards seems like a welcome relief. But we might want to pause and take stock at some point. Surely something is awry when the wealth of new books on the court of Henry VIII and the actions of Thomas Cromwell are judged in terms of Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novels. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s review of Tracy Borman’s new biography (2014) opens with ‘Thomas Cromwell’s ghost must be blessing Hilary Mantel for her two novels so far, and one more to come, restoring him to a life by turns engaging and intimidating’ (2014).
The historical novel that has inspired the new crop of historical works is now held up as their exemplar and judge, a strange example of circular logic. Few readers and reviewers would judge scholars of Norman England in terms of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe — well, at least not today.The problem is that, however hard historians work to change our understanding of the past in terms of social, political, diplomatic, ecclesiastical, religious, local, environmental, popular, cultural, art or any other form of history, broadening our terms of engagement with times long ago, the great men and women always seem to pull us back into their orbit. History is invariably cast in terms of the dominant modern literary form, the novel, so that the life of, say, Queen Elizabeth, can be read alongside a fictional treatment of Æmilia Lanyer, as if they were almost the same thing, the only difference being the truthful nature of one and the imaginative cast of the other. Popular history increasingly looks like fiction, and popular fiction increasingly looks like popular history. As pressures are put ever more strongly on academics to engage with the public, the danger that a popular understanding of history and literature will subsume any academic resistance is obvious enough.