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date: 07 August 2020

(p. 37) The Lives of William Shakespeare

The sections that organize this handbook’s diverse topics, arguments, and methods are intended to function flexibly by situating recognizable terms of engagement on ground that is traversed by dynamic contiguities and divergences. The different investments directing feminist and queer approaches emerge in the volume’s first two essays on Shakespeare’s life. Attending to testamentary and parish records and memorial brasses, Lena Cowen Orlin’s essay challenges narratives of Shakespeare’s ‘marital misery’, revealing how twenty-first-century assumptions not only show surprising continuities with biographical criticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but misinterpret the historical context within which wills were drawn, dower rights understood, marriage licenses granted, apprenticeship terms enforced, and parish records maintained. The perdurability of the traditional ‘story of a nightmare marriage revealed in testamentary insult, an inversion of normative age pairings, and a shotgun wedding’ of pregnant bride and reluctant groom derives from this narrative’s conformation with ‘the prevailing myth of genius’ as well as unreconstructed gender ideologies. In methodological terms, Orlin highlights the misleading interpretative force of the ‘evidence cluster’—the ways in which ‘data of differing derivations seem to corroborate and strengthen each other in ways that become serviceable for a coherent narrative’—as well as the import of negative evidence. By declustering the available evidence and turning doubts into epistemological possibilities, she shows that familiar facts might suggest ‘that Shakespeare’s marriage was intrinsic to his achievement rather than an impediment to it’.

(p. 38) Casting a critical eye on assumptions about normative gender arrangements, Orlin returns to documents regarding Shakespeare’s life in Stratford: his early apprenticeship, marriage, the birth of children, as well as the provision for his family upon his death. Alan Stewart’s archive, in contrast, focuses on Shakespeare’s years in London and his return to Stratford after enjoying theatrical success. Stewart’s narrative also turns on the surprise of continuity: in this case, the similarities within the seventeenth-century tradition of Shakespeare biography, which differs in important respects from the dominant narrative constructed out of a more privileged documentary archive. Focusing less on facticity than on ‘table-talk, chamber-talk, [and] tavern-talk’, Stewart finds in anecdotes and gossip a coherent Shakespearean ‘character’ who appears in scenes of male emulation, sexual and intellectual rivalry, and masculine camaraderie. That this Shakespeare emerges from sources that routinely ignore the presence of his wife and children suggests that, different though they are, Orlin and Stewart are speaking to and with, rather than against each other. For while Orlin recentres Shakespeare’s marriage as the happy event that catapulted him towards London, Stewart demonstrates how thoroughly that marriage was effaced by Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century ‘biographers’ who constructed for him not a familial but a theatrical dynasty.