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February 28, 2006

Shakespeare in retirement

I recently finished Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a chronological series of essays about Shakespeare's life and its influence on his work. It leaves me thinking about the reasons for Shakespeare's early retirement around 1611. That year he turned 47 and was probably not in bad health, for he had bought an expensive annuity that would only pay off if he faced decades of retirement (Greenblatt, p. 364). Why then did he quit London and write nothing more on his own? Greenblatt explores three explanations, and I will add a fourth of my own that's completely speculative:

1. It was a very sensible business decision to retire. Shakespeare had worked extremely hard and become wealthy. But the risks were high. Any time there was a sign of the plague, the authorities would close down all theaters. A fire like the one that destroyed the Globe in 1613 could destroy Shakespeare's investments in his company. In 1604, he and his colleagues had inadvertently offended the King with the Tragedy of Gowrie, a dramatization of James' own past. Such mistakes were easy to make and could cause the government to close companies or even to impose grim punishments like shaving off actors' noses or chopping off their hands. Shakespeare may have decided to quit while he was ahead.

Why didn't he continue to write plays in Stratford, giving up his roles as actor, producer, and theatrical investor? Perhaps it's an anachronism to imagine Shakespeare as a simple writer: he had always been a creator of theatrical entertainments, involved in all aspects of the work from writing to costumes. Shakespeare showed little interest in the publication of his own plays, so it may not have occurred to him to write without also acting and producing. (He collaborated with John Fletcher on three plays after 1611, and his motive may have been to help Fletcher or the company.)

2. Greenblatt speculates that Shakespeare wanted to spend time with his daughter Susanna. His will was carefully written to benefit her above all others. The bond between fathers and daughters is a major theme in Lear, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, among other plays. Shakespeare explores that relationship far more fully than he does the bond between husbands and wives. It is not such a strange thought that he would trade the stress of theatrical management in London for domestic life with a beloved child.

3. More interestingly: perhaps Shakespeare had moral or even "existential" doubts about his own power to create imaginary worlds and to move large audiences to his will. His last sole-authored play is The Tempest, in which Prospero manipulates all the other characters by contriving an elaborate plot and even magically creating specters who act out scenes.

... graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure.

Greenblatt compares Shakespeare's power to "ope" the graves of Lear, Caesar, Hamlet, Henry IV and all the other historical figures of his plays, who come magically to life. Could Shakespeare, like Prospero, have "abjured" that power for ethical reasons? We could supply reasons specific to Shakespeare's age. Before and during the Reformation, many were skeptical of fiction (because it lied), of tragedy (because it suggested that creation was not fundamentally good), and of entertainment (because it distracted from faith). Shakespeare could have shared those worries. Or perhaps this man who surpassed all others in the capacity to create illusions with words saw dangers that transcended his time.

4. We know that Shakespeare discovered how to represent the interior life of characters on the stage. He invented the soliloquy and also learned (as I think the ancients had) to use irony to give glimpses of characters' inner thinking. Not only could he hint at the private thoughts of characters, but he could conjure up their social and historical contexts with just a few words of description. However, the stage is not really the best vehicle for exploring psychology or for depicting social context. The novel offers far richer possibilities for those purposes. Shakespeare read Don Quixote, which provided the plot for his lost collaborative play, Cardenio (ca. 1613). I like to think of him retiring to Stratford, to an annuity and to quiet surroundings, so that he could write a different kind of work--perhaps the first great English novel, or conceivably some other narrative text, such as a biography or even an autobiography. Perhaps that work died unfinished with its author.

Many critics have noted that Shakespeare had an extraordinary capacity not to take an authorial position on the issues of his plays, but rather to depict a range of perspectives. Coleridge called this skill "myriad-mindedness"; Keats named it "negative capability"; and Arnold said that Shakespeare was "free from our questions." A novelist, too, can attain neutrality or multi-mindedness: Cervantes is an excellent example. But negative capability in a narrative requires different techniques from those appropriate in drama. If Shakespeare tried to write a novel, would he have struggled to suppress his own opinions? Or would he have seized the opportunity, finally, to say what he believed?

Posted by peterlevine at February 28, 2006 07:30 AM

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