26th November 1999 at 00:00
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: His life and work. By Anthony Holden. Little, Brown pound;20.

Any Shakespeare biography must border on fiction, argues Heather Neill. So dowe really need another one?

Who was Shakespeare? Who wrote Shakespeare's work? There are plenty of people who would argue that he was not the son of a Stratford glover, that the author of the plays and sonnets must have been educated as a lawyer or lived in Italy or was someone else entirely - Francis Bacon, perhaps, or Christopher Marlowe (what if Marlowe's death in a Deptford brawl in 1593 was faked?). Even Elizabeth I has been put forward as the real Bard by the more lunatic excavators among the sparse facts.

In the end, of course, what matters is the body of work, which is real enough. But it is so tempting and such fun to try to put together the odds and ends of available material - the guessed-at autobiographical hints in the plays and sonnets and the few written records from Stratford and theatrical London - to fashion a person we feel we ought to know.

You can't blame Anthony Holden for making another attempt. There have been scholarly biographies (most recently Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life published by Oxford University Press in 1998), and there is an ever-growing mountain of commentary on the work. Anthony Burgess wrote a sparkling biography intended for a popular market, and it is this, published in 1970, which Holden sees as the antecedent to his own book. So the question is: do we get anything new from reading Holden?

The early part of the book, where there are Stratford records to draw on and where Holden admits that paucity of evidence leads to speculation, is readable and informative. A reasonable case is made for John Shakespeare, the writer's father, having been a recusant, continuing to adhere to Catholic rites when this had become illegal under Elizabeth.

But any biographer of Shakespeare teeters on the brink of fiction and, by the time we get to "the lost years", when Shakespeare is assumed to have been working as a tutor and part-time actor in noble houses in the north of England, Holden gets carried away with the desire to believe he has proved something that he hasn't.

Of course, the reader would like to believe it too, so it is possible to suspend critical faculties and enjoy the possibility. But what you have in the end is no more than wishful thinking set in some enjoyable social history. The idea isn't a new one anyway; Ernst Honigmann (properly acknowledged here) suggested it in his own book on the subject.

There is definite evidence that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior, when he was 18 in 1582. But there is no record of Anne's appearance or character, yet Holden assumes she was "a homely wench". The assumptions gather momentum, and he later refers back to his own speculations as if they were proven fact.

The history of the theatre of the time has been more reliably documented elsewhere, and any student wanting an introduction to the plays would be better advised to read different editions. Yet it is seductive to guess at the connections between the writer's private and professional lives, to see melancholy resulting from the death of his father colouring Troilus and Cressida, or to guess that Shakespeare may have been suffering from insomnia over the fate of Papist families after the Gunpowder Plot when he wrote Macbeth.

Read Holden with a pinch of salt. Enjoy the research into other aspects of Elizabethan life, and then go back to the plays and poetry. Or to put it another way, as Holden does when dealing with speculation about the Dark Lady: "In the end, as so often, posterity is left groping around in the shadows of Shakespeare, who has left us another enigma as elusive as allusive, to the point where all attempts to solve it can only wind up demeaning the rare poetry from which it springs." Exactly.

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