By MICHAEL CAINES
The news that Boris Johnson is to write a biography of Shakespeare has not been greeted with universal joy. As the Sunday Times reported yesterday, the Mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is to write the book promptly, for a mildly impressive sum of money, in time to be published next year – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. And why not? Johnson's most recent biography, The Churchill Factor, is deemed to have been a commercial success: it has sold some 160,000 copies. Never overawed by such footling matters, the TLS called it "a jaunty, opinionated and ahistorical piece of hagiography". (Ah. That's why not.)
That's also pretty much what we can expect from Johnson's Life of Shakespeare, isn't it? Johnson has given us plenty of warning, in any case: he's already written at length about the man he has called "the world's top author" . . . .
And a characteristically jaunty piece of work it is, too. Johnson's Life of London: The people who made the city that made the world appeared a few years ago, in 2011. As Leo Hollis observed in his TLS review, this earlier book is a collection of potted biographies that "collectively . . . tell us as much about the author as they do about the city". Their subjects are "rugged individualists" and mainly male. Churchill is in there, just before Keith Richards. Boudica precedes Hadrian and Alfred the Great.
When it comes to Shakespeare, Johnson tells a few of the old stories ("Richard Burbage famously fixed an assignation with a female fan at the stage door, and went to change from his clothes, only to find that Shakespeare himself had got there first . . .") – and issues the few facts. Many details in Life of London are drawn from a single source, Stephen Inwood's History of London: one of them is an anonymous observation about the "greatest part" of Londoners in Shakespeare's time being neither "too rich" nor "too poor", wrenched complacently out of context to imply some reassuring continuity between us (modern) and them (Elizabethan).
Johnson also draws admiringly on James Shapiro's 1599 for a thrilling sense of Shakespeare's plays as viscerally alive to their political moment, in place of that square old notion that they are "deracinated masterpieces bequeathed to the human race by some garret-bound egghead with a bad haircut" (a very fair point: not every great writer can be blessed with a Johnsonian crown of gold).
Then there are the more personal touches. Johnson reminisces about seeing Shakespeare's Globe for the first time and being stunned by the absence of seats – and about witnessing, as a schoolboy, a recital of Shakespeare speeches in "Brezhnev's Moscow", "watching hundreds of wrapped-up Russians stream into some dim and grimy theatre". The standard export-based model of Bardolatry naturally emerges from the latter story: Johnson's Shakespeare is "the greatest hero and ambassador the English language has ever known", "our single biggest cultural contribution to the world, our riposte to Beethoven and Michelangelo . . . . He is the one author we can truly call universal. He is our Homer".
So brace yourself for more of that.
Whoever writes it, Shakespeare's biography has always been a tricky business. In some ways, the challenge it poses is little changed since the days of Nicholas Rowe, whose dubious, influential "Biographical Account" first appeared in 1709.
In Shakespeare's Lives (1991), after surveying the biographical writings of the past four centuries, Samuel Schoenbaum could write that the twentieth century "lacks an authoritative Life [of Shakespeare] conceived in the modern spirit". Schoenbaum wondered if such a thing was even possible. The "biographical tradition" had reached its heights with the monumental efforts of Edmond Malone, J. Halliwell-Phillipps and E. K. Chambers – and they had all abandoned the idea of writing a "continuous narrative". Long before electronic resources made it easy for many people to say this, they had accrued too much information.
Yet Schoenbaum acknowledged that scholars would continue trying to supply just that. The twenty-first century has already given us plenty of attempts, several of them ingenious and engaging; Johnson's researchers could do a lot worse than look up The Lodger by Charles Nicholl, Ungentle Shakespeare by Katherine Duncan-Jones and the "critical biography" by Lois Potter.
Gaps in the record (those pesky lost years) and uncertainties of interpretation (country boy or sophisticated city dweller?) pose the same tempting challenges to all. Literary scholar, professional biographer and flaxen chancer alike must rely on the same basic information and resort to some degree of informed speculation. "Restless under the constraints of the historical record, biographers end up telling us about many things besides Shakespeare", Graham Holderness notes in Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (2011), "and filling the empty spaces with their own preoccupations." Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway, for example, "can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways".
Some biographers have turned this inevitability into a creative opportunity (Stephen Greenblatt and Holderness himself come to mind) and this tradition goes back to Rowe, too, I think (perhaps because of re-reading Rowe while writing a paper for this conference about Shakespeare and a different Johnson): after editing Shakespeare and writing his biography, Rowe wrote The Tragedy of Jane Shore, "in imitation of Shakespeare's style".
Beware, Boris: "thousands and thousands of books have been written about Shakespeare", as Logan Pearsall Smith wrote in 1933, "and most of them are mad". Schoenbaum accounts for a host of batty amateurs and lesser artists whom one can only hope Johnson hopes to imitate. For example, John Abraham Heraud gives away his misguided game in the title of his Shakspere: His inner life as intimated in his works (1865). Charlotte Carmichael Stopes and Anthony Burgess show what close acquaintances they are with their biographical subject by calling him "Will". (Cf. my own faux-chumminess at the opening of this paragraph.) Frank Harris's remaking of Shakespeare in something like his own image, in The Man Shakespeare and His Tragic Life-Story (1909), sounds like a hoot.
Or perhaps Johnson should stick to something like Burgess's practical, profitable line, as heard in this extract from a talk about Shakespeare for the Book Society of 1964: Shakespeare, Burgess states bluntly, "wrote to make money".
Now that's more like it. No man but a blockhead ever did otherwise. Even the Mayor of London knows that.