Chameleonfire Book Club: Part Two

Shakespeare, The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd deftly avoids the numerous traps of the Shakespearian academic industry with its many divergent, often crackpot theories about who The Bard was or wasn’t. The most ridiculous example is probably the one espoused in the recent film Anonymous, which bases its premise on the notion that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by the aristocrat Edward de Vere. The idea being, presumably, that works of such genius couldn’t possibly have come from the working class. The author has a grounded approach that applies common sense to the interpretation of deep historical research on Shakespeare’s life, bringing the man vividly and realistically to life. Not only is Ackroyd’s thoroughness and common sense commendable, but he has the capacity for dazzling, insightful prose.

Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare paints a vivid picture of the man and lays to rest many fallacies.

Ackroyd’s portrayal of Shakespeare is the closest I’ve ever come to having a picture in my mind of the man’s personality: “We might remark upon Shakespeare’s intense and overwhelming energy. It manifests itself at all stages of his career, and in his youth it must have been irrepressible. We might also remark upon his buoyancy, an inward easiness of spirit. As an actor he was trained to be quick and nimble, but that vitality was an essential part of his being; the images of his plays are filled with flight and with swift action, with movement and lightness. He is the poet of speed and agility. His characters are not of the study or the library but of the busy and active world. His is a drama of the sudden moment or change, and one of his most powerful images is that of the lightning strike “which doth cease to bee / Ere one can say, it lightens.” (Romeo & Juliet, 892-3) All the myriad imagery, from the social as well as the natural world, suggests that he was a man of preternatural alertness. And he was known, like the characters within his comedies, for the quickness of his repartee. …Everyone remarked upon his sweetness and courtesy. …Despite spiteful allusions to his past as a law-writer or country schoolmaster he was generally considered to be well bred and indeed ‘gentle’—not meaning mild or tender, in the modern sense, but possessing the virtues and attributes of a gentleman.” (pp. 115, 116)

The ongoing fuss amongst scholars over what are the ‘definitive’ versions of his plays is also given somewhat short shrift here. Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, Shakespeare was a working actor and dramatist, responding to the day-to-day needs of live theatre. Often that meant revising lines right up to the moment of production, and then again in response to audience reactions. Extant versions of his plays may well be the latest we have, or not. I was surprised—but not surprised—to learn that there are two extant versions of Hamlet penned by Shakespeare, the long version we know today as well as a condensed version used for public performance. Even in 16th century England, Shakespeare knew you can only keep audiences entertained for so long before they start to squirm.

The engraving that accompanied the original folio edition of Shakespeare’s works.

Shakespeare may have been responsible for shifting the focus of Elizabethan drama from purely outward action to the psychological ‘landscape of the interior,’ notably with the angst-ridden Hamlet. His dramatic tool to this end was the soliloquy, which in lesser hands becomes merely a tool to condense action or assert authorial viewpoint. Instead, in Shakespeare’s hands it becomes “the index of evolving consciousness.” As Ackroyd explains: “It is no longer a summary of ‘this is what I am,’ but, rather, of ‘this is what I am becoming.’ It has been remarked that, in the same period, the growth of literacy was leading to a great extension of letters and private diaries; writing itself encouraged ‘introspection and reflection.’” (p. 374)

One of the best biographies I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to read his biography of William Blake, and his ‘biography’ of the City of London has been highly praised as well.

FAVOURITE QUOTES: “If there is one aspect of a writer’s life that cannot be concealed, it is childhood. …More than any other dramatist of his period Shakespeare is concerned with the family; the nature and continuity of the family is invested with the utmost resonance, and can become a metaphor for human society itself.” (pp. 43, 45)

“But there is a curious paradox here, one which he and his audience may have observed. The sixteenth-century theatre is a democratizing force. Common players assume the role of monarchs. On the space of the stage itself nobles and commoners are sometimes engaged within a shared action. There is no dramatic difference between the varying ranks of society. …It… suggests the subversive or revolutionary potential of the stage. It was in essence a populist medium.” (p. 167) Further blurring class lines, Shakespeare himself was able to rise to a position of prominence approximating that of the aristocracy of the period, even being granted a coat of arms—a rare privilege for someone not born into the gentry.

“Fluency or fluidity is also the form of his thought. He delights in pairs, in doubleness, in oppositions. …He is preoccupied by change and contrast, as if only in the play of differences can the life of the world be expressed.” (p. 251)

“Whenever any man fails, Shakespeare’s sympathy envelops him.” (p. 474)

  • Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

Anderson makes clear in occasionally lugubrious but always illuminating detail the origins of the quagmire that is the modern Middle East. Indispensable for understanding the mess in Palestine and Israel right now, as apparently is also Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which I have yet to read. From my fairly wide reading of history in the WWI period so far, along with these new books, one shudders at the myopic idiocy of ‘world leaders’ making agreements that have splintered out disastrously in all directions for the next century. Anderson also makes the connection between Big Oil and the Middle East from its origins. Lawrence in Arabia isn’t so much a biography of T.E. Lawrence as a political/military history although it still provides a fascinating glimpse into the moral contradictions and character of the man. Ultimately, it reads as a tragedy: A man of principle, if noted for his tendency to be cold-blooded on occasion, gradually unhinged by the atrocities he’s taken part in. And then having to endure the ultimate indignity of seeing politicians un-do everything he believes he’s fought for. BONUS: Anderson neatly blows apart the logical fallacy known as the ‘hearts and minds’ strategy in military lore (p. 412). NOTE: Lots of military history so not for those who find this boring.

T.E. Lawrence in the native garb of Arabia.

In the ‘Learning Nothing From History’ Department: In response to the proposal to establish a postwar Jewish homeland in Palestine administered by Britain, British diplomat Mark Sykes (an avowed Zionist) admitted: “Arab Christians and Moslems alike would fight in the matter to the last man against Jewish domination in Palestine.” (p. 231) Compare this with American Louis Meyer’s observation at the time of the Paris talks in 1919 that, “…a Jewish minority in Palestine would never submit to domination by an Arab majority,” (p. 434) and you have all the warning signs you need to predict the next century of bloodshed. Lawrence himself warned that a Jewish state in Palestine would have to maintained by force of arms. (p. 426) At first it may have seemed otherwise: “By August 1917, with the specter of official British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine inching closer to reality, even the more radical leaders of international Zionism had adopted the soothing language of conciliation: whatever the future political framework in Palestine, they stressed, the Jews would live in peaceful coexistence with their Arab and Christian neighbours…” Sadly that conciliatory tone didn’t last. Early Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn’s attitude seems to reflect the mentality that would exist in Israel 100 years later. Aaronsohn “inveighed against the “squalid, superstitious, ignorant” Palestinian serfs known as the fellaheen, freely acknowledged that at times they had been forcibly removed from the land by Jewish settlers—and would be again if he had his way.” (pp. 357, 358)

Anderson’s history makes clear how political decisions of a century ago continue to affect us today.

FAVOURITE QUOTES: Referring to the unprecedented carnage of World War I and the idiotic propensity of generals on all sides to repeat the same strategic mistakes again and again: “Given this running lack of progress earned at such horrific cost, it might seem reasonable to imagine that the thoughts of the various warring nations would now turn toward peace, to trying to find some way out of the mess. Instead, precisely the opposite was happening. It’s a question that has faced peoples and nations at war since the beginning of time, and usually produced a terrible answer: in contemplating all the lives already lost, the treasure squandered, how to ever admit it was for nothing?” (p. 151)

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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