Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday and also the day he died. Though his actual birthday is unknown to us, we do know two things. Shakespeare was baptized on April 26th, 1564 and died April 23rd, 1616. Normally, scholars and artists will celebrate his birthday on the 23rd as a sort of agreed-upon birth date.
My whole 2020 is filled with Shakespeare. I applied to grad school with the intention to study Early Modern English with a focus of Shakespeare, I have read almost half of the Complete Works of Shakespeare while doing the Shakespeare 2020 challenge, and I am taking an online course on Shakespeare, produced through a series of classes from Harvard and Stephen Greenblatt. Today I worked on our biographical assignment, which was to write a response on the importance of biographical knowledge of Shakespeare and what that can create to understand his works? I thought today I’d share my response; I am happy with what I wrote, and I hope you like it!
Biographical information on authors is not essential to understanding their work. As the plays travel through time, people and civilization change alongside them. Biography is only part of a sphere of criticism, and no particular theory is more essential than the other. For example, Glenda Jackson’s interpretation of King Lear does not benefit from a biographical perspective but instead uses a feminist and gender theory perspective to the texts that highlight moments and beats in King Lear that would not normally be centered had it been played by a man, thus conceiving a new “understanding” of the play. However, this perspective is very particular to the instance. Criticism such as “New Historicism” is benefited from understanding biography of both author and critic.
Professor Greenblatt’s criticism of The Tempest in his book Will in the World uses the historical accounts of Early Modern England while using analytical techniques and methods implemented today to create a new understanding of the play. Greenblatt notes that plays such as Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio were “written in collaboration with John Fletcher…the Tempest the last play Shakespeare wrote more or less completely on his own…and it has the air of a farewell…a retirement” (Greenblatt, 373). When we look at Prospero’s last monologue:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands(5.1.2404 – 20414)
It does indeed provide an air of retirement. New historicism gives us not only a unique understanding of per se The Tempest but gives us more insight into the author’s life. It is hard to believe that artists do not put themselves within their work. I think art is about the present in a twisted perspective, whether the present is political or personal is up to the creator.
Some other interesting information we can use that benefits from biography; Greenblatt notes that Shakespeare might have retired from the stage because of his excessive use of “diabolical powers” such as”[awaking] the dead” (Greenblatt, 375-376). Examples of this might be found in the obvious, him writing plays on Julius Ceasar, or Cleopatra, or as Greenblatt notes Hamlet and Hermione (376), but if we use actual sources from the Early Modern Period, we can see that writers such as Thomas Nash in his book “ Pierce Penilesse” state:
How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lien two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.(30)
This can be connected with Greenblatt’s understanding of the Tempest, and how Shakespeare via Prospero is retiring from his “magic.”