Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Myths of Shakespeare's Biography

“Master Will Shakespeare.” Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Perf. Carey Wilson and Anthony Kemble-Cooper. 1936. Romeo and Juliet. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Norma Shearer, Leslie howard, Basil Rathbone, and Andy Devine. 1936. DVD. Warner Video, 2007.

Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare’s Lives. New Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare’s Lives is one of the most extraordinary books of the last four hundred years. This excruciatingly-, painstakingly-, meticulously-researched book reads like the research was no trouble at all—or, if it were, the pain were counted pleasure for our sake. It is scholarly, eloquent, hilarious, and fascinating—but it is scholarly above all its other marvelous attributes.

Schoenbaum has written the biography of biographies, and I mean that two ways. It's an astonishing biography—the best I've ever read—and it's an account of the biographies of Shakespeare. It traces the course of Shakespearean biography from the earliest references through the first accounts of the life of Shakespeare to the most recent documentary research.

But, in attempting to clarify or to debunk Shakespearean myths, Schoenbaum has an uphill road. Popular culture perpetuates myths.

I told you all that to tell you this. The DVD of the George Cukor Romeo and Juliet has a biographical film as a special feature. The interest in it lies in these main points:

Shakespeare Holds their Horses
This tired old myth states that Shakespeare started his theatrical reputation by holding horses at the door of the theatres around London. In This production, this myth is given a new spin by making it the Blackfriars Theatre. Unfortunately, the Blackfriars closed from 1585 until at least 1599 and didn't host Shakespeare's company until c. 1608. If he held horses there, it must have been right at the beginning of the lost years.
The film traces the rest of Shakespeare's career on typical (if not verifiable) lines. He began by rewriting others' scenes, then others' plays, and then he was able to write his own plays.
The Elizabethan Theatre was Primitive by Modern Standards
I suppose MGM had a vested interest in arguing that its films were top-notch technical wonders—but do they really have to tear the Elizabethan Theatre down to build themselves up?
Shakespeare the Smarmy
Whenever this Shakespeare is pleased with himself, he finds his face contorted into an uncontrollable smarmy expression (see above). Again, there is little evidence to support a smarmy bard (though "Smarmy Bard" wouldn't be a bad name for an alternative band).
Read Samuel Schoenbaum, and then watch this clip with a salt shaker handy:

And the brief biographical film does take the time to show Shakespeare signing 1 Henry VI, one of his earliest plays (even though it's very unlikely that he ever did any such thing, at least they had him sign a play from the right era):

And I'm sure "Little Stagestruck Sally" and "Footlight-Fascinated John" were happy to get a shout out in this production!

Works Cited

Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare’s Lives. New Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Links: The film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the book and / or the film from
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Duane Morin said...

Does it make me a geek that I keyword searched that document?

:) I mean, sure, you told us what play it was, but I wanted to see the actual text. Fun!

kj said...

Well, it certainly comes close!


Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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