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Shakespeare an ungentle life.jpgI confess it took me until the day after I finished this book to understand the title. I was thinking, "His life wasn't *that* ungentle," and then I realized she was playing off of the fact that Shakespeare tried to move up in social class by buying himself "gentle" status, as in the gentry. My failure to grasp this allusion early on probably reflects my American unfamiliarity with the idea of gentry. Duncan-Jones spends quite a bit of time talking about Shakespeare's machinations in acquiring gentle status, but the ins and outs of the process didn't mean a lot to me. What I did get out of her analysis of this aspect of his life was that he was a social climber, and it was something that probably caused him anxiety and pretty clearly provoked a certain amount of mockery from figures such as Ben Jonson. (Jonson, like Shakespeare, was not of the gentle class. He had a better education than Shakespeare, but like Shakespeare he did not go to university. Unlike Shakespeare, he did not try to buy his way into gentle status.)

I had never read a biography of Shakespeare before, and this one came to me as a gift from ron_drummond. The thing that inspired me to give it a go was reading Angela Carter's Shakespearean novel, Wise Children. It ended up being quite a fascinating read, although a bit dry and academic. (Duncan-Jones a professor of English literature at Oxford.) I had picked up various tidbits about Shakespeare's life over the years, but it was worthwhile getting a more holistic understanding of his life and career. For example, I had never really grasped how much acting he did, especially early in his career. I'd heard about his will leaving his second best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway, but I didn't know how estranged he'd been from her for most of their married life. I knew he hadn't gotten a university education, but I only knew that because of the bizarre theories about how he couldn't possibly have written the plays his name is on, and I certainly didn't know that he suffered from anxiety about his social status in his own time.

Indeed, Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life is in part a subtle reproof (and disproof) of the anti-Stratfordians -- that is, the people who believe that Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare. By showing that his lack of a university education was an issue even during his lifetime, it just reinforces how dumb and prejudiced the "controversy" is. Nobody at the time questioned that Shakespeare could be the author of the plays, but snobs then as now used his commoner status as a club to question and undermine him. It's just that when he was alive he was mocked for being an upstart with artistic pretensions above his class, or so Duncan-Jones would have it.

But that's only a slight and unstated part of what Duncan-Jones is up to. Mostly she's more interested in portraying his social climbing, his apparent lack of humanitarianism toward the poor, his misogyny, his avoidance of church fees and pursuit of rent for his various properties, and other odd bits of evidence of an "ungentle" nature, with "ungentle" having a connotation of meanness of spirit as well as of a lower social status. Not that it's all about what a boor he was -- nor does it argue that he was a boor because he wasn't gentry -- but it does feel like Duncan-Jones is interested in bringing Shakespeare down off the romantic pedestal of Genius. She even points out that the busts placed on those pedestals indicate that the wealthy Shakespeare may have been a bit too fond of food and drink. In the process she paints an interesting picture of the times and the country as well, with many outbreaks of plague and a transition between ruling royal families. Reading something like this makes me want to go out and read all the other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights and poets. I've read works by Marlowe, Kyd, Webster, and Middleton, but I don't believe I've read anything by Jonson, for example, let alone Fletcher (except Cymbeline, which he co-wrote with Shakespeare) or Beaumont.

Anyway, I do feel I got a better grasp of Shakespeare's life and times from this book, even if it feels highly speculative and infers too much biography from the plays. It is clearly taking part in a long scholarly discussion of Shakespeare's life, and I have no doubt that other books have very different takes on what Shakespeare was like.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 7th, 2015 06:28 pm (UTC)
A good, thoughtful review. Thanks. Glad you liked the book. You remind me of things about it I had forgotten or overlooked. Though I will point out that Fletcher did not cowrite Cymbeline, but rather the lost or partially lost Cardenio, as well as Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

What I found most electrifying about Duncan-Jones's biography was the two paragraphs running from 100/2 through 102/1 -- you may want to reread them. She zeroes in on the circumstances surrounding the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream more successfully than has hitherto been possible, marshaling new evidence. I feel she builds a convincing case for one of what has previously been considered the three most likely possible scenarios, over the others. What's exciting, for me, is that she presents further evidence, a more fine-tuned and capacious scenario, and at greater length, in her most recent book, a study of the first 22 years of WS's public reputation, Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan, 1592-1623 (The Arden Shakespeare Library, Methuen Drama, 2011), found at 202/2-208/1. These materials strike me as particularly fertile ground for the possible pursuit of my own fabulations.
Jul. 7th, 2015 06:52 pm (UTC)
I must have been confused by the fact that Cymbeline is said to resemble Fletcher & Beaumont's Philaster. Although I did see a production called Cardenio in London in 2010 that was either an attempted reconstruction or a different play that had been speculatively identified as the lost text under a different title -- I can't remember which off hand.

I'm curious about Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan, although probably not enough to pay the going price I've seen for it. You certainly are deeper into the Shakespearean weeds than I am! (What weeds he wore!)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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