Wood seems to have a single imperative—keep the story moving. That means flashing from scene to scene—like one of today's high school textbooks, this volume is strong on visuals and weak on analysis—and when necessary filling the gaps in his narrative (and available source material) with whatever he can come up with—anecdotes, old rumors, the rankest speculation. Would-be Shakespeare biographers are eternally frustrated by the fact that not a single letter written by their subject has survived. But Wood does not let a little detail like that stop him. Like a good TV producer, he simply invents Shakespeare letters when he has to.
For example, Wood quotes a real letter by an Elizabethan schoolboy and then assures us: "William would no doubt have had to write the same sort of model letter to his own proud father." In discussing Shakespeare's long separation in London from his family in Stratford, Wood informs us: "No doubt he wrote home." Picking up steam as he goes along, Wood eventually conjures up a whole correspondence between members of Shakespeare's family: "William would have sent letters home—instructions for the builders at New Place, for example, on the purchase of stone, or to his lawyers regarding court cases. He would have received letters, too, from his daughter Susanna, for instance, who was literate, and from his wife, Anne, if she could write—she could have perhaps dictated to Susanna if not.... And, along with the news of the troubles of the town, there would have come more intimate pieces of gossip." I sympathize with Wood in his lack of source material, and I am willing to grant him a bit of poetic license. But as this sequence shows, his flights of biographical fancy all-too-often veer out of control, piling speculation upon speculation.
The relentlessly hypothetical character of Wood's narrative would not be so objectionable if the result were not to distort what really matters—our understanding of Shakespeare the dramatist. Here is a typical attempt on Wood's part to evoke Shakespeare's world: "The old fabric of society was disintegrating.... In a single parish, the Warwick clerk John Fisher counted nearly 250 adults and children in the almshouses and on parish aid; many of them were jobless itinerants.... On the roads around Coventry, Warwick and Stratford that winter such people represented a cross-section of Elizabeth's England. Thomas Wilson, a thirty-year-old Yorkshireman, lived in Warwick with no wife and four children; his jobless teenagers, Tom and Peter, were reduced to begging."
One could argue over whether Wood gives a one-sided and overly negative portrait of economic conditions in Elizabeth's England here, but my real quarrel is with the literary conclusion he draws from this account: "These were the kind of people and the kind of stories that Shakespeare would draw on in his works." The last time I checked, Shakespeare's plays have titles like King Lear and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, not Tom, the Jobless Teenager. This passage reveals the anachronistic character of Wood's treatment of Shakespeare. He is constantly projecting contemporary social concerns back into the plays, and trying to make Shakespeare as politically correct as possible.
Wood's Shakespeare is perfect for PBS and the BBC—he is principally concerned with the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden, the marginal elements in society. But in fact Shakespeare's conception of drama is fundamentally aristocratic, and he focuses his histories and tragedies on the central figures in society—the kings, the queens, the princes, the great generals. Shakespeare drew the material for his plays, not from local anecdotes about the contemporary poor, but from books like Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and Holinshed's Chronicles—stories of the great men and women of past ages. As Erich Auerbach argues in his magisterial book Mimesis, Shakespeare belongs to the classical tradition of literature and remains true to the ancient principle of decorum. His tragic heroes are always highborn figures (even Romeo and Juliet are from noble families); when common people appear in his plays, he tends to treat them comically.
This is not to say that Shakespeare has no sympathy for the poor and the downtrodden; on the contrary, he sometimes portrays their suffering with great poignancy. One of Lear's most moving moments is his recognition of his blindness to the plight of the "poor naked wretches" in his realm. But Lear's reaction is: "I have ta'en/ Too little care of this!"—he assumes that the suffering of the poor is his responsibility as king, and that is why he is the tragic hero of the play, and not, for example, the beggar Tom o' Bedlam. Whether consciously or not, Shakespeare worked with an Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero as flawed but raised above the ordinary level of humanity. As Auerbach shows, this aristocratic conception is even reflected stylistically in Shakespeare's plays. He reserves the high style for his highborn tragic figures and uses the low style for his lowborn comic figures.
It is thus symptomatic of Wood's approach that he has no feel for the high style in Shakespeare. Wood stresses the simplicity of Shakespeare's language (try to explain that to high school students around the world). Quoting a powerfully direct passage from King Lear—"Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!"—Wood makes a false generalization and takes these monosyllables as the norm in Shakespeare:
It is tempting, too, to look back to the plain language he heard in the streets of Stratford: the words his mother and father spoke, and those of the peasants in the fields. To simple country people words are like physical objects: things to touch and see. Indeed, in their simplicity there is almost a moral value, and in Shakespeare the strongest emotions are expressed not in Latin or French words, or in scholastic phrases—resonant though they sometimes are in the mouths of kings or upper-class Roman heroes—but in those old English monosyllables: kith, kin, kind, hate, kill, live, die, good, love. . . .
Wood is accurately describing the theory of a great poet here, but unfortunately for him it is Wordsworth, not Shakespeare. This argument comes straight out of the well-known preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads. For Shakespeare's very different view of "simple country people," take a look at the clownish rustic William in As You Like It. Because Wood follows Wordsworth in romanticizing the simple language of "peasants in the fields," he misses one whole side of Shakespeare's achievement—the heights of grandeur in his verse. As many critics have observed, Shakespeare creates some of his most remarkable poetic effects precisely by juxtaposing polysyllables with monosyllables, elaborate Latinate diction with plain Anglo-Saxon. Consider, for example, Hamlet's lines to Horatio: "Absent thee from felicity a while/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain." Or the even more striking juxtaposition in Macbeth's lines: "This my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red."
It is no accident that wood ignores a whole dimension of Shakespeare's language and goes out of his way to remake him into a poet on the model of Wordsworth. Wood wants Shakespeare to be a Romantic poet because he wants him to be an autobiographical poet. Only then will Wood's investigation into Shakespeare's life shed light on his poetry and his plays. Like many of Shakespeare's biographers, Wood is in the grip of a Romantic conception of poetry—that what an author most fundamentally does is to mine his life for literature, to give expression to his innermost feelings in his works. But Shakespeare is part of an older (and richer) tradition of literature, in which holding the mirror up to nature, not oneself, is the goal. As fellow authors from Keats to Borges have observed, Shakespeare's genius was to suppress his own identity in his works, to write about what he was not. Precisely because he could get out of himself, he became the greatest of all dramatists—able to enter into the identity of others and bring them to life on the stage.
Thus Wood ends up trivializing Shakespeare's achievement by trying to root it in the details of his daily life. He seems to think that he has told us something about King Lear when he points out that Shakespeare had a neighbor in London whose daughter was named Cordelia. "Did Shakespeare, one wonders, stand godfather to her?" Wood asks in one of his endless—and pointless—speculations. Elsewhere Wood hints that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice because he had an affair with a woman of Jewish and Italian descent. The cumulative effect of Wood's efforts to connect Shakespeare's plays with his life in such crudely reductionist terms is to deny that there was anything unique about Shakespeare, to call into question the traditional view that he had special insight into human nature. On the contrary, Wood seems to be saying: "Look: he was a man just like you or me; he had personal troubles and he wrote his plays to get them off his chest."
The problem is compounded by the fact that Wood's analysis of Shakespeare's life is peppered with contemporary psychobabble. At one point Wood writes: "In the months after his son's death, although he still continued to work in London, Shakespeare clearly felt the need for some practical and emotional input in Stratford." Setting aside the question of how Wood, in the absence of any evidence, knows so clearly what Shakespeare was feeling at this moment, one is bowled over by the sheer banality of his language. It conjures up visions of Shakespeare appearing on the Dr. Phil show, with the screen flashing: "Distraught Playwright—Needs Emotional Input." Sometimes Wood's observations on the biographical basis of Shakespeare's plays are pure platitude: "And yet, as happens time and again with great artists, out of loss comes art." Needless to say, in Wood's account Shakespeare undergoes "a mid-life crisis." In fact, Wood's Shakespeare is deeply concerned about aging—"a feeling perhaps accentuated, if the Folio portrait is at all accurate, by his premature balding." Wood fills out his picture of the troubled poet in his discussion of the Sonnets: "Shakespeare's sexual jealousy has a subtext of his own physical decline and anxiety about his sexual performance." We used to be told that Shakespeare was concerned about the human condition and the fate of nations; now we learn that his real concerns were "his premature balding" and "his sexual performance." One comes away from Wood's book wondering: if Rogaine and Viagra had been available in Elizabethan England, would Shakespeare have needed to write Hamlet and King Lear?
In trying to understand how wood could have written such a bad book, I am tempted to blame it, like everything else, on television. Writing with one eye on a potential television audience, Wood has recreated Shakespeare in the image of the kind of celebrity who routinely appears on TV talk shows just before checking into rehab. But the problem goes deeper than this, and Wood should not bear all the blame for this book himself. He has in fact given us a Shakespeare biography for our time, which is to say that Wood's account, popular as it is, grows out of three decades of academic work on Shakespeare. Scholars have been systematically laboring to reshape our image of Shakespeare, and if they have not always headed in the directions Wood pursues, their work has shared his reductionist spirit. Indeed, in reply to my criticisms, Wood could legitimately claim that his biography is solidly based on contemporary Shakespeare scholarship, and he cites and gives credit to a number of well-respected figures in the field, some of whom have even endorsed his book. Throughout his biography, Wood draws upon the new developments in Shakespeare criticism that have gone under the name of cultural materialism in England (critics such as Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, or Catherine Belsey) and the new historicism in the United States (critics such as Stephen Greenblatt, Annabel Patterson, or Louis Montrose). But that tells us more about the defects of these movements than it does about the virtues of Wood's book.
Despite its name, the new historicism has actually weakened the historical sense of Shakespeare scholars. Most of its practitioners do not have a solid grounding in either historical knowledge or historiographical method. They characteristically substitute anecdotes for real history; the typical new historicist article begins with some obscure incident and uses it to construct an elaborate theory of a whole period or an interpretation of a famous literary work. A story about English colonization in Virginia will be offered, for example, as the key to understanding Shakespeare's The Tempest. Years of new historicist analysis have thus prepared the way for Wood's biography of Shakespeare and seem to legitimate it. He in fact draws upon many well-known new historicist interpretations to develop his views of particular Shakespeare plays. But more basically, his whole approach to reconstructing Shakespeare's life is governed by new historicist principles.
That is why Wood feels entitled to speculate as much as he does. The new historicists have been blurring the line between fact and fiction for so many years that Wood no longer feels any need to respect it. Probably the most egregious example of this tendency in Wood is yet another of his fantasies about life in Mr. Shakespeare's neighborhood: "Shakespeare was perhaps close to Mrs. Mountjoy, though to suggest he might have been responsible for her pregnancy in 1597 is perhaps to over-stretch the evidence." Here bad scholarship starts to cross the line into libel. In sum, Wood has given us a postmodern biography of Shakespeare. Who am I to tell him to stick to the facts, when, in the age of Derrida and Foucault, a whole generation of scholars has informed us that there are no facts anymore?
Wood also follows contemporary Shakespeare scholarship in his obsession with the obligatory topics of race, class, and gender. In fact, even by new historicist standards, he gets carried away in his description of Shakespeare's age: "New worlds are discovered, old worlds are lost; the people rise up; kings are overthrown; women speak up for equality with men; black people find a voice in England." Wood is getting a little ahead of historical reality here; feminism and the civil rights movement did not make much headway during the reign of Elizabeth I, or did I miss a prophetic reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Nick Bottom's famous "I have had a dream" speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream? As at many points in Wood's book, the wish is father to the thought. He so desperately wants Shakespeare to be politically correct that he does all he can to manufacture a raised social consciousness in the dramatist and his contemporaries.
Here Wood departs from the majority of the new historicists. They are generally content to view Shakespeare as a benighted reactionary, mired in the race, class, and gender prejudices of his day. Most new historicist analyses are devoted to exposing the false consciousness in Shakespeare, the way he participated in the myriad forms of oppression in the Elizabethan Age. Wood must have sensed that this approach, which might work in the classroom, would not do for his television audience. Shakespeare needs to be the hero of this story, and thus his ideas must be sanitized, reconstructed, and altogether spruced up to look respectable to contemporary eyes. One might think that no one could offer The Taming of the Shrew as evidence that Shakespeare was a feminist, but Wood proves equal to the task:
In this reworking of an older comedy, he questioned some of the patriarchal assumptions of Tudor society, but in the ending rather lamely (to our taste at least) acquiesced in the male view. But throughout the 1590s he would quarry these themes with increasing assurance and humour and write great women's parts that pricked the pretensions of men. The many women in his audience would surely have expected no less.
The executives at PBS and the BBC would surely have expected no less from Wood, and must have been relieved to learn that Shakespeare was attuned to the female demographic.
Wood's obsession with portraying Shakespeare as a political progressive paradoxically explains the most controversial aspect of his book, his insistence that Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic (a so-called "recusant") in the Protestant England of Elizabeth I. This might at first seem to cast Shakespeare as a reactionary, someone who longed to go back to the old religion, but Wood wants Shakespeare to be a Catholic so that he can be an underdog, a fighter against the Elizabethan "police state," as Wood chooses to call it. Wood's "discovery" of Shakespeare's Catholicism turns out to have a new historicist spin—it allows him to present Shakespeare as the prisoner of a Foucauldian panoptical state. In Wood's melodramatic characterization, Shakespeare was a man "whose family religion was defined by the law as treason, and whose father was pursued by the government's bounty hunters and thought police." Ultimately it is less important to Wood that Shakespeare be Catholic than that he be anti-Protestant and hence anti-establishment.
The issue of whether Shakespeare was in fact Catholic is complex and has been much debated in recent years; I cannot hope to do it justice in a brief review. Suffice it to say here that the most Wood has shown is that Shakespeare's father and a number of his other relatives and friends had Catholic sympathies. This of course in itself tells us nothing about Shakespeare's own religious beliefs, and Wood offers not the slightest shred of credible evidence that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic. Even the question of the Catholicism of Shakespeare's father is not as settled as Wood suggests. The main piece of evidence is a document—the so-called Spiritual Last Will and Testament of John Shakespeare—that mysteriously appeared in the 18th century and then just as mysteriously disappeared, making it impossible for modern scholars to authenticate it (the greatest Shakespeare scholar of the day, Edward Malone, at first said that it was genuine, but later reversed his position). One of the worst aspects of Wood's book is the inadequate documentation; on this issue, he says that one of his sources, Patrick Collinson, is "virtually certain" that the testament is genuine, but he disingenuously fails to report the opinion of the other principal authority he cites, Samuel Schoenbaum, who is very skeptical about the document's authenticity. Much of the evidence Wood offers on the issue of Shakespeare's Catholicism is similarly shrouded in ambiguity. For example, he makes much of the fact that Shakespeare's father was reported on several occasions as having failed to attend church. This could be the action of a man whose Catholic loyalties made him refuse to participate in Protestant services, but it could just as well be the action of a man who did not want to attend church at all.
In the end, Wood's treatment of Shakespeare's Catholicism is disappointing, not only because he fails to prove his case, but also because he does so little with his supposed great discovery. To be sure, he offers a few highly selective and one-sided readings of individual plays that suggest that they embody Catholic sympathies. Readers will be surprised to hear, for example, that, of all plays, Henry VIII is one of Shakespeare's pro-Catholic efforts. This extraordinary interpretative achievement depends on Wood putting all his emphasis on a sympathetic speech Shakespeare gives to Henry's first wife, Katherine, while he dismisses Cranmer's famous speech prophesying the glories of Elizabeth's Protestant reign as a "slightly nauseating eulogy of the golden time she would inaugurate"—and besides, Wood decides, it "was written by [Shakespeare's] collaborator, Fletcher." This is typical of the way Wood tailors the evidence to fit his pre-conceived conclusions.
If one reads Shakespeare's plays with an open mind, one finds a remarkable number of anti-Catholic sentiments expressed by his characters, especially in the histories, often echoing standard Protestant charges against the Roman Church. Take a look at the opening scene of Henry V, for example, where the Catholic bishops of England are portrayed as Machiavellian schemers, willing to give the king the pretense he needs to make war with France in order to retain the Church's wealth and power (indeed they are presented as forestalling an early attempt at what was to become the reformation strategy of Henry VIII). If one knew on independent grounds that Shakespeare was a Catholic, one might dismiss such passages as a form of secret writing. But if, in the absence of any reliable external evidence, we must form our impression of Shakespeare's attitude toward Catholicism solely on the basis of what we see in the plays, we are forced to conclude that it was negative, at least in political terms—he certainly raises doubts in the history plays about the consequences for England of adhering to a religion with a foreign power base.
In Wood's highly selective reading of the plays, he makes no effort to come to terms with all the evidence in the texts that runs counter to his thesis that Shakespeare was a Catholic. He seems in fact incapable of grappling with the issue seriously. On the one hand, he repeatedly says of Shakespeare: "he never sounds like a Protestant" or "these do not look like the habits of mind of a Protestant." On the other hand, when he tries to sum up Shakespeare's worldview, incredibly he describes him as "a man who believes that conscience is an individual matter"; a few pages later, he repeats himself, saying that for Shakespeare "Conscience was a personal matter." The belief that conscience is a personal matter was of course the central issue on which Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics. Ultimately Wood's argument about Shakespeare's religious beliefs is incoherent. He likes the idea of Shakespeare as a Catholic insofar as it fits his image of the playwright as a rebel, a champion of the downtrodden. At the same time, however, he hesitates to impute any truly Catholic beliefs to Shakespeare, and when he has to state the playwright's credo, he feels that he must make him sound as liberal as possible and hence describes him in distinctively Protestant terms.
In short, the whole Catholic controversy in Wood turns out to be part and parcel of the process of adapting the life of Shakespeare to television. It is just one more stage in the makeover Wood thinks Shakespeare needs so that he will be presentable to a twenty-first century TV audience. Like any TV producer, Wood wants his hero to have a certain edginess, but he does not want him to stray too far from mainstream ideas of what is politically correct. Wood comes up with a perfect solution—his Shakespeare is just Catholic enough to be a rebel, but just Protestant enough to be a liberal in matters of conscience.
It is a truism that every age remakes Shakespeare in its own image. If so, Wood's Shakespeare is a sad commentary on our age. In both academic scholarship and popular accounts like Wood's, people today struggle to translate Shakespeare into contemporary terms, to make him speak our language and echo our peculiar concerns. The result is to cut Shakespeare down to size and lose sight of everything that makes him unique among authors. In the distorting mirror we hold up to Shakespeare, we see reflected back only what we wish to see—all the obsessions of our particular moment, and that means chiefly the obsession with victimization, of people oppressed in terms of race, class, and gender. In the age of victimology, Wood thinks he has done Shakespeare a favor; he has found a way to present Shakespeare himself as a victim, a closet Catholic in a Protestant police state. "Catholic" is about the only oppressed minority to which Wood could assign Shakespeare with any plausibility. Evidently he felt that pairing him with a dark-complexioned Jewish mistress was not enough (Wood argues that the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was Elizabeth Lanier, a woman who "was doubly an outsider: of Jewish descent and with the looks of a 'Moor'"). At a time when minority status has become the highest badge of honor, Wood seems to have decided that the way to refurbish Shakespeare's reputation is to link him with as many minorities as possible.
The saddest thing about this obsession with victimization in presenting Shakespeare is that it prevents us from truly learning from him, from hearing his genuinely distinct voice, from allowing him to open our eyes to human possibilities of which we are in danger of losing sight. Shakespeare was not a creature of his age. If there is anything one can infer from the body of his plays, it is that he was not limited by the horizons of Elizabethan England. His gaze ranged all over the known world of Europe in his day, and reached back to classical antiquity. Judging by The Merchant of Venice and Othello, we can say that he was fascinated by the revival of the ancient form of the republic in Renaissance Italy, and all the new possibilities and problems it created. More remarkably, in his Roman plays he journeyed back to the greatest of all the ancient republics, and in a magnificent archaeological effort brought Rome back to life, at least on the stage.
Wood is so wrapped up in the issue of Christianity in Shakespeare that he has little or no interest in his achievement in the Roman plays. Typically, he projects his own lack of interest back onto Shakespeare:
The world view sustained through Hamlet, Measure for Measure, King Lear and Macbeth had been founded on the thought world he had grown up with: the Christian imaginal universe.... The absence of this theme from Antony and Cleopatra suggests that for him, at least in tragedy, it was exhausted. He was satisfied as an artist: in King Lear especially he had said what he wanted to say.... Antony and Cleopatra gives the impression of being a technical tour de force. ...So on this occasion he may have delivered his contracted piece without having sweated blood emotionally.
So Shakespeare's heart was not in Antony and Cleopatra; he was just going through the motions, catering to "Jacobean taste." The reader is continually amazed at Wood's knowledge of exactly what was going through Shakespeare's mind at every stage of his dramatic career (can one really imagine that Shakespeare was ever "satisfied as an artist" or that he had ever fully "said what he wanted to say," even in King Lear?). Wood reveals more about himself than he does about Shakespeare here. Despite some attention to Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin and Greek, and possible classical sources for his plays, Wood is basically blind to Shakespeare's sustained interest in classical antiquity.
Five of Shakespeare's 10 tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus) are set in the world of classical antiquity. Shakespeare explores this world as a genuine alternative to the Christian world. He shows how the ancient Greeks and Romans had views often diametrically opposed to those of modern Christians on fundamental issues, such as the nature of heroism. Even in his plays set in the Christian world—above all, Hamlet—Shakespeare often includes classical references that highlight the basic conflicts between the Christian and the pagan understanding of human life. Thus, faced with the difficult choice of suicide, Horatio thinks of himself as "more an antique Roman than a Dane." Shakespeare can in fact serve as our window on classical antiquity, in many cases giving us our first glimpse of the world of Homer and Virgil, and thus helping to extend our sense of the range of human possibilities. But not if we accept Wood's view of Shakespeare. He cannot bring himself to understand how a figure like Coriolanus—the image of Aristotle's great-souled man in all his problematic nobility—could serve as the hero of a Shakespeare tragedy—a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless. Wood takes his cue from Bertolt Brecht's Marxist rewriting of Coriolanus and thus Shakespeare's play becomes just more evidence of his "sympathy for the downtrodden."
The phenomenon Wood cannot fully appreciate in Shakespeare is the nobility of his heroes. He speaks about Shakespeare's heroes in the same vulgar, anachronistic, reductive language he applies to the playwright himself. Romeo and Juliet are examples of "adolescent angst," and Prospero "is a control freak." Wood's whole vision of the world of Shakespeare's plays is distorted and diminished because he sees it through the lens of contemporary pop psychology. No wonder he thinks that the funeral of Princess Diana is an appropriate parallel to the funeral of Prince Henry in 1612. After all, it played so well on television.
Do not waste your time reading Wood's book. If you must read a Shakespeare biography, try one of the older and more objective ones; I particularly recommend Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, which has the virtue of reprinting all the relevant primary documents, thus allowing readers to make judgments for themselves. But if you really want to learn something about Shakespeare, go back to the plays—that is where his wisdom is to be found and not in any account of the details of his evidently rather ordinary life.
I leave the last word on Shakespeare to a fellow poet—William Butler Yeats—who understood that his greatness lies in his ability to take us away from our everyday selves on a voyage into exotic realms, far beyond the ordinary range of our experience. Yeats contrasts the wide scope of Shakespeare's works with the Romantic turn inward to autobiographical poetry, with its contraction of our horizons to the realm of the domestic and the personal. And finally, Yeats brilliantly diagnoses the spiritual exhaustion of the modern age in its growing inability to appreciate the heroism of the past. Yeats's brief poem "Three Movements" helps to put Wood's biography in historical perspective:
Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?