Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lois Potter's "The Life of William Shakespeare"



I enjoyed Lois Potter's The Life of William Shakespeare tremendously. Subtitled "A Critical Biography," the book looks at all the works by the Bard not only as literary artefacts but also as living process. On the poems, she observes the pressures on an ambitious young man aspiring to make his mark on literary London. On the plays, she is particularly acute on Shakespeare and his collaborators. She is also sensitive to how the plays were written or adapted to capitalize on star actors and boy performers. Different audiences, whether at the theaters or the Inns of Court or the royal palaces, accounted for different versions of the plays. Publication of the plays were economic and political decisions, and not just literary ones. The process of producing the work was messy, contingent, opportunistic, and it is a testament to Potter's writing that she is able to bring a clarity of form to her mastery of detail. One useful device is to begin every chapter with a quotation from Shakespeare. The quotation launches a brief discussion of the theme of that stage of Shakespeare's social and writing life.

What she does not know, she says so. What she is unsure of, she speculates cautiously. I like the suggestiveness of some of her outside references. In her discussion of Anthony and Cleopatra, she considers Jungian archetypes of gender.

Jung's "Perfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness," though a wild generalization, works remarkably well as an account of the duality of this play. Jung went on to insist that, "just as completeness is always imperfect, so perfection is sterile." Macbeth may be the most perfect of Shakespeare's plays, in the sense of being self-contained and atmospherically unified, but its power comes from the evocation of a universe that eventually shrinks to the dimensions of Macbeth's obsessed mind (and his marriage is, at least in the play's present, famously sterile). In Anthony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, Shakespeare emphasizes the fertility of the Nile and "All the unlawful issue" of the two lovers, while never mentioning the children that the historical Anthony had by Octavia. 

Potter is also very suggestive when defending Shakespare against the suspicion that somebody more learned wrote his works.

One effect of situating Shakespeare among other writers may be to make the anti-Staffordian argument irrelevant. If he can be seen as an author like any other, there is no need to talk about his "genius" and no need to displace him with someone else. "Genius" is a term unpopular in scientific circles because it makes no distinction between potential and achievement. It is however a term that people like to use about Shakespeare, and perhaps the main reason people like to read books about Shakespeare is that they hope to discover some cause of "genius" that they themselves can imitate. Yet what they most need to imitate is his productivity. As Dean Simonton writes, "the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of infuential products an individual has given the world." As I have already indicated, it is the sheer number of Shakespeare's surviving plays and poems, and the fact that few people can claim both breadth and depth of knowledge in them all, that makes them an inexhaustible field of study. We are all, forever, trying to remember him.

I am guilty of reading books about Shakespeare, such as this one, to discover how I can be a "genius" like he was. It is interesting to think that what I have to do is to produce as many influential products as I can within my short lifetime.

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