A scholarly analysis of Shakespeare’s life that reads like a detective story


“Neither a literary biography nor a full biography,” this book takes a closer look at what surviving documents tell us and, when their trace dries up, what documents about its neighbors might reveal about the events that defined Shakespeare’s life in Stratford: his father’s financial collapse, his marriage, his houses (including the “Birthplace”, probably damaged by fire in the 1590s and then rebuilt), his will and his memorial. While most of it consists of dense scholarly analysis, it reads like a detective story in which a trained investigator revisits an unresolved case.

This is a revisionist portrait of the artist. The transgressive image of Shakespeare circulating in recent years – cosmopolitan, perhaps secretly Catholic, most likely gay or bisexual, eager to flee Stratford – is here replaced by a Shakespeare who is “a father” in a close economic partnership with his wife. He is particularly devoted to his father, whose fall from the top of the Stratford leadership to a man who was afraid to leave his home for fear of being arrested for debt was, for Orlin, “the defining event” of the Shakespeare’s private life, hence “everything else followed.” She interprets Shakespeare’s marriage at a young age (which would have ended all apprenticeship and thereby excluded a college education) as an act that helped restore her family’s fortunes. Most scholars have read Shakespeare’s last wills and testaments as cold at best, especially when it comes to his family. But Orlin sees it differently. Although not, like many Jacobin wills, an “expressive” will, it shows how every gift specified by Shakespeare, including the clothing, the sword, the bowl, and that notorious bed, shares “The imprint of a nameless sorrow”.

It also shows that much of what we take as fact about Shakespeare’s life is due only to the thinnest archival threads. Anne Hathaway’s baptismal certificate does not survive, and the only reason to believe that she was eight years older than Shakespeare is the number that appears on her commemorative brass – quite often, Orlin shows, imprecisely remembered or returned. In his diligent research, Orlin came across a 1566 baptismal record for Johanna Hathaway, daughter (as was Shakespeare’s wife) of Richard Hathaway of Shottery. Orlin doesn’t insist too much on this possibility, but if it was the woman Shakespeare married – her name is poorly transcribed – Anne might have been two years younger than her husband.

Three contemporary images of Shakespeare are widely accepted as authoritative. One is the awkwardly executed woodcut that appears in the first folio of 1623. Another is the romantic portrait of Chandos now in the National Portrait Gallery. These two are reproduced endlessly. Not the third, a limestone effigy painted in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, in which Shakespeare looks – as scholar John Dover Wilson said – like a “self-satisfied pig butcher.” Orlin’s account of this monument is final. She sends to pack the “skeptics of paternity” for whom a conspiratorial cover-up explains the differences between the 17th century sketches of this memorial and the frequently repaired and looted effigy (from which the actor David Garrick allegedly stole the “right index finger” ). She goes on to suggest that Shakespeare likely commissioned the effigy and met Nicholas Johnson, the artist who made it. If so, like it or not, this is how Shakespeare wanted us to be remembered. His account, detailed and dazzling, also left me melancholy, because too early, given the cuts in funding and training, this kind of scholarship may no longer be possible.

Shakespeare’s biography is often marked by overbreadth, and Orlin is not immune. An academic herself, she cannot help but rephrase Shakespeare as such, urging us to “imagine Shakespeare participating in the intellectual culture of Oxford” and asserting that “Shakespeare is almost certain to have attended lectures and conferences. sermons in university chapels ”. There is no hard evidence given for these claims. And after arguing that Shakespeare had an office in New Place, the big house he bought in Stratford, she can’t help but fantasize that this is where he wrote his last plays: “How many of his characters and episodes developed from the scenes that took place in the streets below him as he wrote in the western light of the office window? ” Its source ? Stratford’s gossip-hunter vicar of the early 1660s, John Ward. Orlin’s meticulous handling of archival material fails him here, as his eagerness to encroach upon the London Shakespeare upsets his usual precision. Ward never wrote that Shakespeare “in his old age lived in Stratford and provided the stage with two plays each year.” He has indeed noted two separate anecdotes, which Orlin then combines by connecting them with a comma (the curious can consult a facsimile on the site of the Folger Shakespeare Library, “Shakespeare Documented”). Orlin knows that towards the end of his career, Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, working with John Fletcher on his last three: “Henry VIII”, “The Two Noble Parents” and the lost “Cardenio”. You don’t write plays with co-authors who live three days away. These are unfortunate missteps in an otherwise impressive and valuable book, a biography that will lead many to revise their lessons in class.


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