Shakespeare and Speculation

September 5, 2001

Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life, London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

ungentle-shakespeareUngentle Shakespeare is not intended as a conventional, chronological biography.  Instead Duncan-Jones chooses to explore some neglected areas of Shakespeare’s life and to “bring Shakespeare down from the lofty isolation to which he has been customarily elevated, and to show him as a man among men, a writer among writers – indeed, a writer whose manifest brilliance often made him the object of envy and malice, rather than adulation.”  Such an approach is laudable.  Duncan-Jones’s new book is thematic, and frequently enlightening.  But her arguments, however colourful or provocative, are not always successful.  Among her more controversial speculations is the argument that Shakespeare was homosexual, and she seems to leap on the dismal bandwagon that rolls over poor Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife and widow.

As Duncan-Jones herself makes plain, “It is manifestly risky to treat plays as sources of personal information or reflection.  Nevertheless…” she does so, following a long line of Shakespeare biographers in bold pursuit of the elusive bard through the pages of his folio.  In her case Duncan-Jones reads a good deal of autobiographical information in As You Like It.  She believes this play includes a wiser, more urbane William marking his transformation from the rural idiocy of his Stratford youth.  She also finds sexual puns in the names of Shakespeare and his characters, claiming that Shakespeare (“one who flashes a phallus”) is mimicked in As You Like It by Touchstone (“one who handles a testicle”).

Few definitive records exist to provide a comprehensive understanding of Shakespeare’s movements as a youth and a young man, and this book does not attempt to fill in all the intriguing gaps.  Duncan-Jones does not seek to quantify the Latin Shakespeare learned at grammar school, nor does she promote or discuss in detail the theory of a recusant Shakespeare, the ‘lost’ Lincolnshire years, or the possibility that young Will worked as an attorney’s clerk.  She does, however, take it for granted that the eighteen-year-old Shakespeare was forced to marry the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway after making her pregnant. And she is sure that he did not truly love her.  From the very beginning Duncan-Jones’s account of Anne Hathaway is highly coloured and prejudicial.  She claims it is likely that after the death of her father in 1581, the unmarried Anne was left “without much parental care or control, and as a mature and spirited country girl she exploited her freedom to consort with the local youth.”  As for young William, apparently a combination of “boredom” and “sexual curiosity natural to his years” led to his “dalliance” with Anne in what Duncan-Jones miraculously defines as “probably his first experience of sex.”  The unenthusiastic groom soon became lumbered with a growing family to feed, and no real career prospects in Stratford.  Seeking to explain the young man’s involvement in theatre that provided him both a career in London and respite from his wife in Stratford, Duncan-Jones speculates that Shakespeare joined the Queen’s Men after being recruited from Leicester’s players, as other performers from the region had been before him.

Shakespeare relocated to London and moved between theatre companies.  He proved himself more as a writer than as a player, becoming key playwright for the Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) and eventually securing a share in the lucrative Globe and Blackfriar’s theatres.  During sporadic plague outbreaks all public theatres were closed.  At such moments of theatrical and commercial crisis Shakespeare turned to patronage and income from poetry.  Duncan-Jones finds significant the fact that Shakespeare, unlike other writers of the time including Thomas Nashe and even Ben Jonson, did not dedicate works to noble women or seek their patronage.  Shakespeare wrote the narrative poem Venus and Adonis, dedicating it to the young Earl of Southampton.  Duncan-Jones claims that Shakespeare’s relationship with the stylish young nobleman (and Cambridge graduate) was strengthened by the writing and dedication of The Rape of Lucrece.  She suggests – rather unconvincingly and with no clear proof – that there may have been a sexual relationship between Shakespeare and his young patron.

Many scholars have commented on Southampton’s financial support of Shakespeare.  Duncan-Jones suggests that Southampton’s cash gift was not, as others have argued, for Shakespeare’s acquisition of a share in the Chamberlain’s Men or for the purchase of property, especially New Place in Stratford in1597.  Instead, she believes Southampton supported Shakespeare in the specific purchase of a coat of arms and the necessary accoutrements of a gentleman.  A coat of arms had long been coveted by John Shakespeare, William’s father, a man who developed his trade as a glover and rose to the high position of Stratford bailiff before facing financial difficulty and the contraction of his assets.  William Shakespeare not only advanced the family fortune by purchasing the prominent New Place, but he also stood to attain “gentle” status for himself on inheritance of his father’s coat of arms.  Duncan-Jones argues that Southampton’s money and political connections were relevant in meeting Shakespeare’s desire, and the falcon motif in Shakespeare’s coat of arms is most likely homage to the four falcons on the Southampton coat.  Unfortunately for the successful playwright and poet, he was not the only aspirant purchasing fraudulent heraldry at this time.  The official who sold coats of arms was later disgraced, and it became known that the Shakespeare coat of arms – among numerous others sold to mechanicals and rude men  – was not deserved or honourable.  The Shakespeare motto struck an ironic note: NON SANZ DROIT – Not Without Right.  Shakespeare’s friend and literary rival, the poet Ben Jonson, later ridiculed this motto as Not Without Mustard.

Duncan-Jones discusses the ungentle times of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, including plague, political intrigue, lawsuits, poor harvests and poverty.  Having prospered as a writer in London and as a property-owner in London and Stratford, Shakespeare apparently hoarded grain during times of shortage – hoping thereby to maximise profits.  Again Ben Jonson reputedly mocked him for this.  Later, in Macbeth, Shakespeare symbolically atoned for his selfish action and criticised this widespread practice – with the porter ushering a grain speculator into Hell.  But Duncan-Jones suggests that Shakespeare also avoided paying tax, and did not give much charity to the community of Stratford even after becoming a wealthy man.  Duncan-Jones pays close attention to the numerous court cases involving Shakespeare and his family (some including debts or fines, and one involving libel), and she analyses contemporary events that may have fired his literary imagination.  She provides a plausible explanation of an English court case in the early seventeenth century – involving Cordell Annesley, the youngest daughter of a senile courtier – that may have influenced Shakespeare’s rewriting of the old story King Lear.

Throughout this engaging book Duncan-Jones writes with vigour and wit.  But sometimes her speculation is wild or cruel.  Her turn of phrase is striking, though occasionally poorly timed or ill conceived.  After the death in 1596 of his son Hamnet, aged eleven and a half, Shakespeare had no male heir.  Duncan-Jones suspects (on what basis we are not sure) that Shakespeare and his wife ceased sexual relations in the 1580s.  Duncan-Jones proceeds to connect the death of young Hamnet and the life of Anne Shakespeare in an unfortunate manner: “Yet while there’s death there’s hope.  Fairly naturally, given the discrepancy in their ages, Shakespeare may have dreamed that he would eventually outlive Anne and that he might one day be able, as a gentleman of substance, to make a better marriage, and beget another son.”  William and Anne Shakespeare remained married for a further twenty years after the death of their only son, and the poet predeceased his older wife by seven years.

Nonetheless, Duncan-Jones insists on Shakespeare’s dislike of his wife Anne, a woman who apparently played “no part in the fashioning of [Shakespeare’s] art or ensuing fame.”  To present throughout her book such a totally negative perspective on the Shakespeare marriage, Duncan-Jones argues from silence, speculates wildly, and treats tendentiously extant documentary evidence.  Although laudatory of Shakespeare’s writing, Duncan-Jones tends to depict her subject as a misogynist (particularly in a few sonnets) with hatred for his wife especially pronounced.  In his will Shakespeare infamously bequeathed his wife “my second best bed.”  A number of scholars have noted that this would have been the bed Shakespeare shared with Anne in their thirty-three years of marriage, the best bed being reserved for guests.  Duncan-Jones, however, asserts that at the time of writing his will the ailing Shakespeare “was surely…being nursed in the best, or ‘master’ bed” and that he was “determined that Anne should never occupy it, even after his death.”  Moreover, she reads a pointedly sinister motive into Shakespeare’s gravestone curse:


Duncan-Jones believes these lines were designed to exclude Anne Shakespeare, to ensure that her remains never rested alongside his.

Shakespeare’s widow is not the only family member for whom Duncan-Jones makes bold value judgments.  She is willing to assert that Anne was “unloved” and that Judith – the surviving twin of the unfortunate Hamnet – was “despised.”  It is true that in his will Shakespeare treated Judith far less generously than his oldest child, Susanna.  And it is plain that in conventional terms Susanna made a more prestigious marriage than her sister – joining with the prosperous and honourable Dr John Hall.  But is there any evidence to support Duncan-Jones’s claim that Shakespeare was “coerced into accepting” Judith’s intended husband, the wine-seller Thomas Quiney?  Duncan-Jones is determined to portray Shakespeare at the end as an unhappy man, living in Stratford only under sufferance because of his illness, and bitter with an unloved wife and a despised daughter who he is determined to do down in his will.

from Trey Ratcliff at www.stuckincustoms.comDuncan-Jones seems to read Shakespeare’s death-bed experience through the emotional prism provided by Ben Jonson’s play The Devil is an Ass.  Jonson’s furious final scene depicts a bed-ridden (and apparently dying) man railing against his wife and feigning madness in the hope of invalidating a contract that would have left his property to an undeserving young man.  But such vitriol and passion in Jonson’s late 1616 fiction is no guarantee that Shakespeare’s actual death many months earlier was accompanied by anything of the sort.  Duncan-Jones in fact goes to great lengths to explain that the evidence she fails to provide must have disappeared along the way: “By the 1660s…Stratford gossip retained a memory that drink had played a part in Shakespeare’s end, and that some of his London friends [including Jonson] had come up to see him.  But his angry alienation from his wife and younger daughter, and fury with his new son-in-law, had dropped out of oral tradition.”  Duncan-Jones goes to similar contortions of logic to explain why Judith Quiney always remembered her dead father as a gentle man.

Duncan-Jones finishes her provocative study with an invocation that is difficult to take seriously: “It’s far better not to read yet another biography, but to ‘read him’.”

Is such a statement false modesty?  Is it designed to throw critics off balance, or to provide them with a ready-made tag?  If taken literally, should this command have been her first (and only?) line instead of her last?  Or are her words a timely reminder of the need to return to the source?  Whatever her intent, Duncan-Jones’s final words shall not bring an end to Shakespeare Studies, and people will want to read works by and about the bard – including such exciting but controversial books as Ungentle Shakespeare.

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

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