Shakespeare biography hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years. With few exceptions, those who write about his life continue to obsess over a handful of issues that have little to do with what or how he wrote – from his sexual inclinations to his pursuit of status to his decision to leave his wife a ‘second best’ bed. Because most of his biographers accept as a matter of faith the Wordsworthian notion that ‘the child is father of the man,’ a disproportionate amount of attention has also been devoted to finding in Shakespeare’s early and ‘lost’ years – rather than, say, the first few years of his writing and acting career in London – the key to what made Shakespeare Shakespeare. Over time, the emphasis has changed, though the premise that his early years were crucial has not: Shakespeare the poacher, butcher’s apprentice, soldier, lawyer’s clerk and schoolteacher have all had their day and are currently supplanted by Shakespeare the crypto-Catholic. Given the absence of hard evidence to support such claims, the biographer’s search has usually begun not in the archives but in the plays themselves, which are ransacked for clues that can be read back into anecdotal accounts of his early years (and since the plays contain a vast range of experiences, this is not as hard to do as it may sound). Unless one believes that the plays are two-way mirrors, it is difficult not to conclude that this approach is ultimately circular and arbitrary.
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