Just a few days ago I paid tribute to the late Ivor Brown despite the fact that by then I had only consumed about three chapters of his superb book simply entitled "Shakespeare". Now I have finished it and I have a confession to make - at the end I very nearly cried! Had the tears actually flowed (well, I'm not quite that soppy!) they would have been for happiness not sorrow. All of us latter-day Shakespeareans, both those who love him and those who dismiss him as an ignorant country bumpkin used by some university-educated nobleman as camouflage for the real author of the plays and poems, suffer with the same problem - we know so damned little about him! You could write the absolutely known facts about him on one side of a sheet of A4 - the rest is conjecture. And the problems do not end there as we try to edge closer to the 'real' Shakespeare because there are so many different approaches to be made. The textual scholar will come at him from one angle, the modern equivalent of the 'groundling' from another, the historian from yet another and the actors and directors from yet more directions. And always, no matter how hard you look, Master Shakespeare remains as elusive as ever. However, that is not to say that the exercise is either futile or wasted. Dismissing for now the nonsense that the Stratford man did not write the plays and poems attributed to him, it is possible, if you glean as many of the facts as possible and then study his writings with affection and care and intelligent perception, that you can begin to see the outline of the man himself.
It is with a wealth of "affection and care and intelligent perception" that Ivor Brown approaches the task and his book is a superb. At this point, I must confess that I am, so to speak, parti pris because Brown's conclusions match my own tentative feelings. I think I may have mentioned before that I always picture Will Shakespeare in one of the taverns close by The Globe, joining with his fellow actors and writers in a drink and a gossip after a performance but amongst this no doubt lively company he would be the quiet one, the observant one, the listening one always eager for a new turn of phrase, and the sober one who probably left early in order to continue his night-time writing. Brown sums him up thus:
"[He] is a figure of seeming contradictions: yet to me at least it comes out sufficiently coherent. Many an eminent professor has written of Shakespeare as though he had never been inside a theatre, never cursed and adored the players, never despaired at a rehearsal or rejoiced at 'an opening' where all flowed well, never worn the motley himself and relished the feel of getting his audience, never cursed his clever little critics in the galleries, and never sworn to throw the whole game up - and then been at it again the next morning. The first and simple fact about Shakespeare is that he was stage-struck, as all of his calling have to be: otherwise they would be driven frantic by the madhouse in which they work. Theatre life, with its quarrels and muddles and vanities, is a form of lunacy: but the moonbeams of that lunacy can be of a radiance that does indeed reward. Out of the tantrums and tornado or - even worse - out of the dreary flatness of a really bad rehearsal, out of the egotism and jealousy of the green-room, out of the delay and frustration and confusion inevitable in the staging of plays, grandeur may suddenly spring when the great day arrives. Then the play, which seemed possessed by Caliban, becomes an Ariel and 'flames amazement' on the audience. This occasional miracle of the theatre its inhabitants know: indeed, by it they live. Shakespeare was of that company and knew the pains, the ecstasy, the magic.
Loving beauty, from the eye of the wren to the starry floor of heaven, he loved women and paid for it. His masculine affections were warmed, too, by his eye for elegance. He opened his heart freely. He suffered deeply in body and mind in the middle reach of his life and almost laid laughter aside. He had lost his son and found a dark mistress who turned out to be of 'the sugar'd game'. He was more libertarian than libertine, for libertines fall behind with their work, and he was ever punctual with a new play, even while studying a new part to act for no good reason save his delight in the mumming of it [...].
Let the scholars call him myriad-minded, a visionary symbolist, co-equal of Dante and Milton in his scope of soaring thought, if they will. But they must not forget the player who would not give up, the writer of parts for actors coveting a laugh or 'a round', the enchanted observer of the malt worms and of the tapsters who served them; this was a man not so much omniscient as omniverous of the human scene. It is customary to end books on Shakespeare by remarking of him as Agrippa said of Antony (rather oddly), that 'a rarer spirit never did steer humanity'! But Shakespeare was not at the rudder of the world and never sought to be. A more pertinent line is Romeo's, 'I'll be a candle-holder and look on'. None ever held the candle to throw a subtler ray or better recorded the shadow-play which that illumination gave. He was not for the throne of pomp or the dias of the intellectual; he preferred to be the Gentleman in the Parlour, the vagrant lodger, the man in the wings, the reporter in the royal gallery. In these positions of spectatorship he mingled three elements: a commonsense philosophy of moderation, deep feeling for all folk suffering and all things gay or beautiful, and unfailing power to find the word perfect to each place and subject. Out of this trinity came his unified perfection in the writer's art. He had his solitary moods and would evade the clatter of cups and quips when the writing fit was upon him, which was often. But he was 'Sweet Mr. Shakespeare' none the less and 'known to his own'.
Thank you, Mr. Brown - and thank you, Master Shakespeare.