A colourised illustration of William Shakespeare, after a Charles William Sherborn engraving

Chapter and verse on the unknowable Bard

The striking thing about Sir Stanley’s Shakespeare is how unsexy he is


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Our isle may be sceptred, our plot blessed, but in one respect we English have been rather unlucky. In Dante the Italians have a poet who feels knowable: anyone who glances at the Divine Comedy becomes privy to his likes and dislikes, his tastes and his prejudices, who his enemies are and how he wants them to suffer. The Germans, for their part, have Goethe. They are fortunate not only that Goethe’s character shines through his writing, but also that his sayings and mannerisms were preserved for posterity by Eckermann.

The English, however, are stuck with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare had no Eckermann. Nor did he ever really bare his soul in his plays, always disappearing somehow into his stories and his characters. About those plays there are infinite things to say, but the man who wrote them remains forever out of reach.

What Was Shakespeare Really Like? Sir Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press, £14.99)

It is natural for admirers of Shakespeare’s work to wish to get to know the man. In 1909 A.C. Bradley declared, “Though I should care nothing about the man if he had not written the works, yet, since we possess them, I would rather see and hear him for five minutes in his proper person than discover a new one.” Sir Stanley Wells, perhaps Shakespeare’s finest student since Bradley, finds this a “rather odd admission”. “Would you swap, say, the lost Love’s Labour’s Won or even the joint-authored, and also lost, Cardenio, for five minutes with Shakespeare, possibly on a bad day?”

No, of course; the work is what matters. Sir Stanley’s profound love of Shakespeare’s work pervades every page of his slim book. What Was Shakespeare Really Like? started life as a lecture series Sir Stanley delivered on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. (The spring of 2020 was not the most auspicious time, and the lectures had to be moved online.) The book also contains a charming epilogue, where Sir Stanley reflects on his “eight decades with Shakespeare”.

One of his first encounters with Shakespeare was his feeling of “priggish frisson” when, as a schoolboy reading out a line of Hermia’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he got to say the word “hell”. (That gateway drug to Shakespeare is probably no longer available to today’s youth, although the obscenity remains a draw; I still find myself titillated by the oblique reference to masturbation in Sonnet 1.) When he began to feel “the first pangs of love” in adolescence, he turned to Sonnet 29, which got him hooked. Shakespeare has been his “companion” ever since.

If anyone today can be said to know Shakespeare, it’s Sir Stanley Wells. He has not set out to write a biography — and given the gaps in our historical knowledge, a satisfying biography of Shakespeare will probably always elude us. It is, rather, a rough sketch, a faint impression. It has a Rumsfeldian quality: you might not come away from it knowing much more about Shakespeare, but you will at least come away from it with more known unknowns.

The portrait is largely a positive one. Sir Stanley’s Shakespeare is a practical man, a “family man”, a “team player”. His acquaintances provide solid character references. He was a competent boss and director who knew the strengths and limitations of his colleagues (Sir Stanley manages to articulate this without sounding too McKinsey). He was funny and fun company. Unlike most of the other playwrights of his age, he never got into much trouble with the law.

We know too little about him to lay Shakespeare on the chaise lounge

“The figure that the mature Shakespeare cut in public,” he concludes, “was conventional, middle class — we might even say respectable.” Reading this book, I was strangely reminded of Paul McCartney and Ian Leslie’s description of him as an “ordinary genius”. Sir Stanley is sceptical about attempts to piece together Shakespeare’s personality from his plays. Those who venture down that path risk telling us more about their own preoccupations than the Bard’s. The index to a 1989 study of Shakespeare’s personality, he notes with a wry smile, includes entries for Shakespeare’s “abhorrence of vagina” and “phallic fantasy”.

Critics of a Freudian bent have spilt much ink over the loss of wealth and status of Shakespeare’s father, but Sir Stanley doubts whether John Shakespeare really was that poor in his later years. Even if psychoanalysis does allow us to enter the mind behind a text, a hotly-debated matter, Shakespeare isn’t a feasible patient; we know too little about him to lay him on the chaise lounge.

It’s tempting to resign ourselves to ignorance about his inner life, but there remains one possible escape hatch. Sir Stanley agrees with Wordsworth that the sonnets are the “key” with which “Shakespeare unlocked his heart”. That the sonnets were essentially confessional and autobiographical is probably the most contentious of Sir Stanley’s arguments. Certainly, Shakespeare’s extraordinary imagination must permit the view that the sonnets are no different from the speeches he put into his characters’ mouths in his plays.

Yet it seems the sonnets (unlike the plays) were never intended for public consumption. This makes it somewhat easier to leap, with Sir Stanley, to the conclusion that the sonnets represent Shakespeare’s “private attempts to wrestle with his inner demons” — but a leap it remains, in a book otherwise devoid of them.

If the sonnets really are autobiographical, then we can say that Shakespeare was less strait-laced than the image of the “family man” — which Sir Stanley is otherwise eager to stress — might lead us to believe. That he conducted extramarital affairs is corroborated by an amusing anecdote in the diary of John Manningham of the Middle Temple. More excitingly, if Sir Stanley is right about the sonnets, this would put one of the big debates to rest: Shakespeare was almost certainly bisexual. Whether he actually had homosexual relationships is a different matter, but Sir Stanley thinks it likely.

Aside from that, the striking thing about Sir Stanley’s Shakespeare is how unsexy he is. So many people have tried to make Shakespeare the man live up to the mystique of “the Bard”, to make him more interesting than he probably really was. In the epilogue, Sir Stanley relishes his status as the slayer of these tall tales. He “poured cold water” on the idea Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, “pooh-poohed” the image of Shakespeare the pot-smoker, and “ridiculed the notion that he was murdered by his son-in-law, John Hall”.

The most audacious efforts to sex up Shakespeare are those which deny his authorship of the plays altogether. Someone suitably luminous and flashy, like the chivalrous Earl of Oxford or the polymathic Francis Bacon, makes for a more alluring genius than the modest, “respectable”, jobbing playwright from the West Midlands.

Some Shakespeare scholars feel it “beneath their dignity” to answer the anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theorists. Sir Stanley, however, is quite right to take pride in having bested them in intellectual combat, thereby defending the honour of this most ordinary of extraordinary men.


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