Better Not to Know Too Much?
These days famous writers are celebrities and details of their marriages, divorces, tax problems, even dentist’s bills are regularly splashed over the media. It seems tough to me that they should be regarded as public property, when writing is such a private and solitary activity. And how much does it really add to our enjoyment of their work? Precious little and maybe reading about the author is sometimes a substitute for reading their work. These thoughts were stimulated by a book I’ve just finished reading about perhaps the most celebrated writer of all: Lois Potter’s biography of Shakespeare, which was published last year. Not much is known about Shakespeare. The historical record is scanty and even patchy. We don’t know what Shakespeare was doing before he began his acting career in London, why he stopped writing, or what he died of and there is very little evidence of what he was like as a man. Lois and I been friends for a very long time. She was my tutor in my long-ago undergraduate days and hosted memorable play-reading evenings. Her book draws on a lifetime of scholarship and I don’t think you could have a more thoughtful and judicious guide to Shakespeare’s life and times. I read it with huge enjoyment. I was fascinated by her account of Elizabethan drama at the time when Shakespeare came on the scene. It was much more like modern day screen-writing with its collaborations and script-doctoring than I had imagined. I very admired the way she draws on a huge range of historical and literary sources to give a densely textured sense of the context of Shakespeare’s life and work, never presenting even the most intelligent speculation, her own or anyone else’s, as fact. Maybe Shakespeare lived most vividly in his work and perhaps if we knew too much about Shakespeare the man, we’d be disappointed. But in nay event Lois’s biography has done what the best biographies of writers do. It has sent me back to the plays and the sonnets.