December 27, 2004

Did Shakespeare Have Any Imagination?

Lately I've been poking through Stephen Greenblatt's new biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, and while I enjoy it quite a bit, I'm afraid the whole project seems ridiculous to me. Greenblatt's basic premise is that Shakespeare borrowed heavily from his life experiences to create his plays—which makes for some interesting conjecture (Falstaff = Robert Greene!), but it also downplays Shakespeare's actual inventive abilities.

Greenblatt's premise, by the way, was first put forward by James Joyce, via Stephen Dedalus, in the library chapter of Ulysses (Scylla and Charybdis, I think). "He proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandfather is Shakespeare's grandson…" or something like that. The theory, of course, works much better as a gloss on Ulysses—which actually did rely heavily on Joyce's own biography, and in which we can find closer one-to-one correspondences between the novel's characters and real-life persons. But even that sort of analysis (Buck Mulligan = Oliver Gogarty!) always seemed horribly reductive: surely there are at least as many non-autobiographical elements of Ulysses as there are autobiographical elements.

With Shakespeare, perhaps more so. Falstaff from Henry IV might have been based on Robert Greene; but he could have just as easily been based on 5 people, or 100, or no one in particular. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets may not have ever existed as a real person. Why not? That's what imagination is for.
-- Brad Plumer 4:21 PM || ||