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'Fact and fiction don't blend well in biographies'

James Shapiro on why speculating on Shakespeare's private life can be dodgy.

books Updated: Jan 23, 2012 18:41 IST
Antara Das, Hindustan Times

James Shapiro is a Shakespeare scholar. But he prefers describing his way of work as a "pig is with truffles". "I can find in archives what other people are known to have passed by," he says, looking anything but a moth-eaten academic in his black t-shirt on a balmy Monday morning.

"Burrowing deep" is his strength, says the professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. "I might not be the most brilliant theoretician" is the mild but lethal bathetic statement that follows.

Shapiro tore apart the conspiracy theories that surround the authorship of Shakespeare plays in his 2010 book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? "I am critical of biographies that blend fact and fiction," he says. "They don't mix well together." The standard Shakespeare biographies tend to "speculate wildly" about the Elizabethan dramatist's family or emotional life, and that makes Shapiro uncomfortable. He had discovered that a vicar at Stratford had planned to meet Shakespeare's daughter sometime around 1662. The daughter, however, passed away before they could meet. "That closed the door on the likelihood of finding anything about what kind of a father or husband Shakespeare was, or what food he liked."

Shapiro is less dismissive of 's attempt to add substance to the somewhat sketchy portrait of Shakespeare's wife (in the book of the same name). "Greer does bring her own preoccupations, concluding that Shakespeare died of venereal disease for which there is no evidence. But she did manage to shift perspectives and liberate Shakespeare from a clutch of mainly male biographers," he says. In the end, the bravery of her attempt outshines the flaws of her book. Contesting the authorship of Shakespeare's work is a phenomenon not more than 150 years old. But if one is patient, Shakespeare is bound to "emerge as a figure of the moment, responsible to the moment".

First Published: Jan 23, 2012 18:41 IST