Shakespeare and the Autobiographical Model of Fiction

After my inner debate concerning the multiple piles of hay confronting me, I decided on the book on the authorship of Shakespeare.  Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro, was fascinating.  Not only did it go into some detail — though only some — about why William Shakespeare of Stratford quite obviously wrote the plays attributed to him in his own day (as evidenced by a multitude of his contemporaries, in letters and documents and the handbooks of his fellow actors, playwrights, shareholders, patrons, and random foreigners who went to the theatre in London), but it went into great detail about why and how the theories of other authors came into existence.

This largely has to do, Shapiro argues, and I see no reason to doubt his research or his argumentation, with the rise of the autobiographical model of fiction.  This is the idea that one must “write what you know,” in the tiresome commonplace thrown out at anyone who starts trying to write fiction.  From the writer’s point of view, its utility — and frustrations — are fairly obvious. From the critic’s point of view, it makes one (a) desire to know as much detail as possible about the author in order to do one’s literary criticism, and (b) try to figure out the author’s psychological state by reading his works.

Thus Mark Twain, who wouldn’t write about mining in South Africa without personal experience (and, when the man he’d commissioned to go, take copious notes on the subject, and dedicate the months necessary to being Twain’s proxy while the story was being written, died on the return voyage, shelved the project), believed that no glover’s son from Stratford could possibly write about kings and princes and courts; thus Freud had to believe that Hamlet was written after the author’s father’s death roused his Oedipal complex.  When the play was redated to well before John Shakespeare’s death, Freud chose to break with Shakespeare’s identity rather than with his model of writing.

As a scholar, I am satisfied with Shapiro’s argument and support.  As a student of self-consciously autobiographical pre-modern writers — Dante and Boethius — I have to agree with the perils of assigning modern sensibilities and psychology to earlier people.  As someone who spends a great deal of time exploring intertextuality as a reader and a writer, I will also argue for the imaginative spark provided by reading other people’s books.   As a writer of fantasies, I am going to go to bat for my, or Shakespeare’s, or anyone’s, ability to make things up.

Everything I write I have thought: obviously.  It’s all coloured by my experience: certainly.  It helps me understand myself: very much so.  But: do I need to have experienced this to write it?  Of course not!  I’ve never been a magician or gone to Fairyland or gone on a sailing ship, but that doesn’t prevent me from (trying, at least) to write about such things.  Nor do I see why we must believe Shakespeare to have identified himself with Hamlet — or Prospero.  Surely it’s much more likely that if he were writing about anyone’s character he knew, it would be his lead tragedian’s, for whom the parts were written, rather than his own.  (This is not to go into the questions of all the great villains: are they, too, necessarily Shakespeare?  Or Richard Burbage?)

I haven’t seen Anonymous yet.  The two Shakespeare scholars at work and I have made a tentative plan to watch it when it comes out on DVD.  I hope it’s aesthetically pleasing, at least.


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