An eminent scholar tries to imagine the great playwright’s character and tastes. But can we really know the bard?
In the epilogue to Stanley Wells’s slim, engaging book, in which he attempts to shed light on Shakespeare’s personality, the eminent academic describes himself as being like Puck to a former colleague’s Oberon. And it’s true that there is something essentially puckish, something creatively mischievous for a man of Wells’s considerable scholarship to claim anything about Shakespeare’s inner life.
His book comprises four online lectures that were delivered during the lockdown in 2020 and closes with a summary of his eight-decade relationship with Shakespeare and the many garlands it has brought him. Compared with the detail of Wells’s own autobiography, what precedes it might seem a little thin. The facts of Shakespeare’s life are sparse, and any attempt to fill in the considerable blanks is fraught with risk. This might be the point: Wells knows enough to know how much remains unknown. And after a lifetime of wrapping himself in Shakespeare’s words, he is prepared, at 93, to share with us the impression of Shakespeare he has been left with.
The four essays draw on four sources of information: the raw facts we do have; how plays were put together at the time; what Shakespeare’s sonnets reveal and, finally, what the comedies might allow us to suppose about his sense of humour. Each area has its attendant pitfalls in fleshing out the man, as opposed to the artist. And while Wells opens with an admission of how little we know about Shakespeare beyond his written work, he cannot help, as the book progresses, his own judgment becoming clouded with supposition. By his second essay Wells is falling back on phrases such as “one can imagine”, or “I find it irresistible to conjecture”, or “it seems likely”. To which a reader might respond: “Seems, sir? Nay,what is?
What remains remarkable about Shakespeare is not just that there seems to be so little of him in history, but so little of him in “Shakespeare”: by which I mean his printed works, the works that have resonated across the world. This is because he disappears, deliberately, magnificently, into his characters. That, after all, is the dramatist’s – and indeed the actor’s – art, of which we regard him as the supreme practitioner. Wells knows this, but still can’t help, occasionally, claiming this or that speech as representative of Shakespeare’s true voice. He is excellent on the working practices of the time, and presents Shakespeare, rightly, as part of a firmament of writers, both of sonnets and plays, rather than a shining, single star. However, in showing us who and what Shakespeare was like, Wells fails to make the case sufficiently for why he was unlike anyone else. And when he, in summary, argues that Shakespeare’s imaginative capacity “results from a need to understand and forgive himself” it’s difficult not to feel his achievements are being reduced.
Contrary to the spirit of our own age, Shakespeare seems (that word again) not to have wanted to cultivate a public image beyond his work. Perhaps we should honour that reluctance. For if any attempt to frame the facts of his life relies on following patterns, on likelihood, are we not underestimating the possibility of chaos, of spontaneity, of the inexplicable? Shakespeare, while being a person, a playwright, a father, a husband, a success, was also inexplicable. A freakish spirit of invisibility and imagination. Does knowledge of his bed, or his appearance, or his property or his “lost years” really illuminate his work? I’m not sure. We have what he wrote, and through it we see ourselves. It is enough.