‘The biographer begins, of course, with the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where Mr. Shakspere was born and died, giving a lengthy, nostalgic description of Stratford in Shakespeare’s time, refulgent with the glow of small-town boyhood.’ As Joseph Sobran sarcastically indicates, there is indeed something ‘almost comically formulaic’ about Shakespeare biographies. Of course, this is equally true of other biographies; what the Renaissance would call copia is perhaps inevitable in Shakespeare’s case, when there are so many books and so few facts. Since Sobran is an Oxfordian, he naturally makes a distinction between the ‘Shakspere’ of Stratford and the ‘Shakespeare’ who wrote the plays. He is right about this too: there is a gap between the biographical and the literary figure, though not, I think, because they were two different people. After two decades of writing about Shakespeare’s life, Sir Sidney Lee concluded that ‘The literary history of the world proves the hopelessness of seeking in biographical data, or in the fields of everyday business, the secret springs of poetic inspiration.’ This view, famously insisted on by T. S. Eliot, was once taken for granted in literary criticism. It is now largely superseded, on the one hand, by cultural materialism, which wants to know all it can about those ‘fields of everyday business’, and, on the other, by the postmodern taste for indeterminacy, which has readmitted legendary and anecdotal evidence in order to play with alternative life stories. And so Stephen Greenblatt argues, in his recent contribution to the biographical tradition, ‘to understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into art, it is important to use our own imagination’.
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