Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem - Diana Price 2.5* (out of 5*)

This book poses a bit of a conundrum for me: Is it possible to like a work of non-fiction and enjoy reading it, while at the same time taking issue with – even vehemently disagreeing with – the content of the book?

In Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, Diana Price explores the reasons why Anti-Stratfordians believe that the author most of us know as William Shakespeare was not the one man from Stratford that has been credited with the creation of Shakespeare’s works.

Price goes through the arguments of why Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare one by one and creates a well-rounded overview of the Anti-Stratfordian tenets. She starts with differences of names in records, mentions of Shakespeare in the writing of his contemporaries, financial records, biographical dates, and the works themselves, dissecting the use of language, rhythm etc. for clues of authorship.

I am certainly no Shakespeare scholar, I have merely a passing interest, but overall I found the arguments really unconvincing, especially the ones based on financial records.

One one hand, Price argues that there are hardly any records to show that Shakespeare, the Stratford man, received any payment for literary work, which Price uses as evidence that the man in Stratford didn’t write the plays (etc.). On the other hand, Price argues that there are few records of any payment for the literary works created by anyone. There seem to be records for payments from various patrons to the actors and theatrical groups, but there seems little differentiation between actors and writers.

Is this really all that surprising? At a time where printing had developed into an industry based on the sale of tangible goods but publishing had yet to establish itself because professional authorship as such was still in its infancy, why would we expect to see records of payments to authors? If printing produced tangible goods for sale (no advertising as yet) with no consideration given to authors, why would we expect theatrical players who had an even longer history of producing any known story with appeal to the crowds to make the distinction between writers and players?

Copyright was not introduced to the UK until 1710, so why would there be a need for recording a distinction of works, and for recording payment (as proof of payment)?

I don’t get it.

What I also didn’t get was the argument that the Shakespeare the London playwright would not have needed to become a landowner and business man in Stratford becasue surely his literary success would have secured him an income.

Literary success or success as an actor/producer/theatre owner was a risky and more so fleeting business. My question back to the author would really be why wouldn’t a man supporting a growing family try to secure an income from a traditional source such as land and tenancies?

I really don’t get the basis for most of the arguments in the book, actually, even if I’m only mentioning two here.

So why did I still enjoy reading this?

I think the answer is because the book did make me look at how we look at biographies, research, and the presentation of arguments. I liked that the author tried to go into quite a lot of detail of looking at records and questioning how we read biographies and how some biography writers forego original research and simply re-work secondary sources, sometimes without fact-checking, which can lead to contradictory statements of fact.

This is something I have come across in biographical work of other authors and other people on several occasions and it is a particular pet peeve of mine.

However, while I share Price’s annoyance with lazy research and I liked her questioning the “facts” presented by several biographers, I had little time for her reasoning and production of evidence for any counter-theories.

Next up, I’ll turn to Stanley Wells’ short work on Why Shakespeare was Shakespeare for a – no doubt passionate – defense of the traditional view of Shakespearean biography.


Previous reading update:

Reading progress update: I’ve read 77 out of 376 pages.:

So, just to confirm yet again that I definitely tend to lean towards non-fiction when travelling. I guess, this is because being forced to sit on a plane or train with nothing much else to do forces me to focus on the book…not that the extra effort is needed or that the book is boring or hard to digest. It isn’t! It’s the lack of distractions more than anything. Nothing else I could or should be doing instead. So, … might as well sink into the discussion of whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare.

Anyway, I have made a fair dent into the book and so far have one main question:

The author asserts that the discussion of the authorship problem with Shakespeare (i.e. whether the man who lived in Stratford really wrote all or any of the plays, sonnets, etc.) is not really discussed in academic circles and that it has been left to enthusiastic amateurs to flesh out the argumentation for and against the hypothesis that Shakespeare may not have existed in the way that most biographers present.

So, why is that? Is this still a valid assertion?

The book was first published in 2001 and the edition I am reading is from 2012.

I’m really enjoying the book. There seems to be a thorough-ish (as far as I can tell from the references) literature review of the available material and clear argumentation.

And one other point of interest, I picked the book on a recommendation from Derek Jacobi who is an anti-Stratfordian and mentioned the book in a talk to the Oxford student union. The joys of rabbit holes enabled by youtube…


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