About Hank Whittmore’s Blog on the Relevancy of Biography in Understanding Literature (and vice versa)

Hank Whittemore, an eloquent Oxfordian

Hank Whittemore, an eloquent Oxfordian

For those of us who have been involved for a while in the search for a credible story about how the works of William Shakespeare was created, Hank Whittemore is a renaissance man. First of all he’s a creative artist himself, and that adds something substantial to one’s understanding of how others create. Indeed, many of the distinguished people who have stood up to the stonewalling and intimidation and expressed doubt about the orthodox view have been artists themselves: Mark Rylance, Sir Derek Jacoby, Jeremy Irons, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, not to mention Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman and many others. As artists, its just very difficult for them to square the biographical facts we possess with the grandeur of the writing. It is easy to place Hank among the notables, because he’s not only been a successful writer throughout his adult life, but also a superlative actor of stage and screen. So when Hank talks, we listen.

Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon

Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch

And recently, in his blog, he responded to two essays in the “Bookends” section of the New York Times Book Review. The two essays, one by Thomas Mallon and the other by Adam Kirsh were reflections on the relevance of a biographical approach to literature. Both writers were asked to respond to the question, “When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s biography?”

Not surprisingly the case of William Shakespeare came up, and Hank responded with great insight to their comments. Reading the two essays, followed by Hank’s own, provides a very edifying look into the place of biography in understanding and appreciating the works of great literary artists; and more specifically in understanding the inquiry into the authorship question itself.

The links to the Times and to Hanks blog are below.


 Hank’s Blog

Shakespeare by candlelight. Love it! And so did those jaunty Jacobeans

A bit like Blackfriars

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: A bit like Blackfriars

After an almost inconceivable absence of a thousand years, public theater had its renaissance in London during the mid-16th and early17th centuries. At first it was all open-air theaters like The Red Lion, The Theater, The Globe and The Swan. Performances, including Shakespeare’s early plays, thus occurred only during the day.

But come on: once they got used to public theater again, the Jacobeans wanted to attend at night, too. So in 1608 they built Blackfriars, an enclosed theater, not on the West End, but on the north side of the river. It was all candlelight and new types of plays and a cool nocturnal ambiance ever after.

Fast forward 400 years.

In 1997, the Globe Theater was rebuilt and opened to much acclaim. A part of its mission was to discover more about how the original Elizabethan dramas were performed, and the creative process that led to them. Not just all-male casts and authentic costumes and music, but also the spirit of the plays and the mystery of the original spoken language. With Mark Rylance as its artistic director for the first ten yeas, much was revealed.

But still, it was appropriately open air.

Early this year, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened right next door, as a kind of annex to the Globe. Also inspired by the late great Sam Wanamaker, the new theater is smaller and enclosed and like Blackfriers lit entirely by candles; which will no doubt cast a new light on those illusive times. Hopefully it will also add to our understanding of the creative process that led to that brief renaissance in public theater, and to our ever inscrutable Canon. (In ways, that’s what the authorship inquiry is all about, too: how did it happen?)

There’s a great article about the new theater in The Economist, January 23, 2014. See link below.


“Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection”; A new book by Professor Stephen Greenblatt

"I think Shakespeare loved Montaigne and also wanted to tear Montaigne to pieces." Stephen Greenblatt

“I think Shakespeare loved Montaigne and also wanted to tear Montaigne to pieces.” Stephen Greenblatt

Whenever Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt comes out with a new book – in this case, Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection – Charlie Rose invites him to sit “at this table”. And it always makes us crazy!

Out of one side of his learned mouth Mr. Greenblatt says, “We know almost nothing about William Shakespeare, despite the fact that I have written a biography about him. He’s very hidden. He conceals himself.”

Out of the other side he talks about Shakespeare as if he lived next door.

“I believe he thought money – which he was very interested in – was bound up in what his long term life would be. I think earlier in his life he thought poetry, lyric poetry, would probably carry him forward. And he was quite famous in his own lifetime as a great lyric poet. But I think he understood his long term prospects would be in the commercial theater; and that there was no gap; there was no division, between doing well in the commercial theater and having the life that’s led to this conversation 400 years later.”

In the admitted absence of any evidence, Mr. Greenblatt seems to know an awful lot about the great writer’s inner life: what Shakespeare thought about money; what he felt his prospects were as a lyric poet, and what he thought about the relationship between the Elizabethan market economy and the arts. Without any source documents whatsoever, it’s as if Mr. Greenblatt were practicing a kind of imaginative scholarship, and knew quite well that he was making up most of his assertions; an historical fiction of sorts, about which he seems quite proud. His conjectural point in this case was that the greedy, litigious shit we know as the Stratford man, could easily have also been the great lyric poet and playwright.

The part that makes us crazy is that the “made up” assertions give pause to neither Mr. Rose, nor Mr. Greenblatt, nor ninety-five percent of the other practicing Shakespeare scholars. And yet they control what the general public believes about William Shakespeare. And they stifle research.

That’s why we must continue to challenge the academy. That is why we must be steadfast in our inquiry!

Montaigne invented for the world what it means to be autobiographically frank.

Montaigne invented for the world what it means to be autobiographically frank.

On the other hand, Mr. Greenblatt IS an awesome intellectual and elegant writer. His “Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection” looks like a really fascinating book that could indeed shed light on the creative process that led to Shakespeare’s revolutionary depiction of the human character, what Harold Bloom called, “The Invention of the Human.”

No doubt, Shakespeare did read Montaigne, but not in the original French. He (or she) read him in the English translation made by the remarkable Elizabethan scholar, linguist and translator, John Florio. “Shakespeare’s Montaigne” was, in truth, Florio’s Montaigne. Mr. Greenblatt has done everyone a great service not only by reviving the translation, which does enable us to sort of “look over the shoulder” of the writer as he drew on Montaigne to create deeply human characters like Hamlet and Lear, but also by renewing our interest in John Florio himself.

Who IS John Florio?

Who IS John Florio?

Within the Shakespeare Authorship community , Florio is considered a credible candidate for the “true” writer of the poems and plays. Indeed, Montreal scholar and writer Lamberto Tassinari has beautifully documented the case for Florio in his book, “John Florio, The Man Who Was Shakespeare.”

Professor Greenblatt argues with his usual erudition that even though they never met, there was a close relationship between Montaigne and Shakespeare. And we agree. In addition, we suggest that there was probably an even closer relationship between Florio and the bard; that is, if they were not one and the same.