A monument to flatulence. Shakespeare's plays embody a pre-modern notion of art; they cannot be reduced to the status of Bridget Jones. Terence Hawkes explains how not to read the Bard

William Shakespeare: His Life and Work

Anthony Holden <em>Little, Brown, 367pp, £20 </em>

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Biography is the novel's last resort. Fiction's strictest rules apply. Beginnings have to be aligned with endings, endings must unpack and resolve beginnings. Everything needs to be tightly tucked into the Procrustean bed of the subject's "personality". Does Shakespeare frequently allude to Genesis and Matthew? Then, claims Anthony Holden, "it seems logical to deduce these were the first books he studied". Is Macbeth horrified at Banquo's ghost? That's because it connects with young William's "religious dread" of the charnel house in Stratford. After all - guess what - he "played in the churchyard as a child". Never mind the "logic", feel the plot. It seems mere party-pooping to protest.

But some pooping is in order. Solidly researched and commendably lucid, Holden's biography nevertheless shrugs off too many of the difficulties of the genre, as well as too much of the competition. Thus, sniffy dismissal awaits Park Honan's recent Shakespeare: a life (1998), while vacuity about the "boundless hospitality of Shakespeare's imagination" booms fruitily away, garlanded as "the happy phrase of my Oxford tutor". Then, suddenly, we're in Barbara Cartland country, where an "ambitious young dreamer" finds himself all too easily "enamoured of a homely wench eight years his senior". But if we try, as instructed, "to conjure young William's feelings about the solemn consequences of his brief moment of summer pleasure", what awaits us? None other than - Hallo, Hallo, Hallo - the Significance Police, rounding up that blagger from Twelfth Night, whose advice "Let still the woman take an elder than herself" immediately fingers him as one of Old Bill's usual suspects.

In truth, Holden never quite shakes off the mantle of roguish Olde England-bibber for whom the word "poet" remains ardently inseparable from "tavern", "ale" and "wenches". In that laddish, half-timbered heaven, rumbustious bardic boozing, thigh-slapping raillery, to say nothing of a sly bit of "getting up to no good" (ever rewarded with "a bout or two of the clap") all add up to the "natural poet's raw material" with a readiness guaranteed to have your Oxford tutor rummaging breathlessly in his cliche-bag.

Weightier matters are naturally also sifted, often with considerable forensic skill. A careful and persuasive analysis of the "lost years" of 1579-92 reinforces the notion that the recusant Bard served as "William Shakeshafte", a youthful tutor-turned-actor in the illicitly Catholic household of the wealthy Hoghton family in papist Lancashire. But well marshalled and deftly deployed as this evidence undoubtedly is, its significance for the plays remains difficult to assess. Its outward political implications would have been impossible to display. Its inward personal features can hardly be accessible to us .

Modern prejudice will insist otherwise. The last century and a half has seen the growth of an assumption that the purpose of art is to confront its audience with private and "internal" issues in which the personal experience of the artist forms a crucial element. At its most banal, this declines abruptly into the proposition that, if Shakespeare wrote about something, he must have experienced it. So, if Macbeth can't sleep, you're free to wonder, with Holden, whether "Shakespeare himself was suffering sleepless nights". You can claim that, in his later plays, a preoccupation with his daughters bulks large, or that Cymbeline's exquisite dirge - "Fear no more the heat of the sun" - pays yet further tribute to the Bard's dead child, Hamnet. You can even insist that it's impossible to believe that the man who wrote The Winter's Tale had not himself experienced "the full anguish of sexual jealousy". But where does it end? Is "Blow winds and crack your cheeks" some covert monument to flatulence? Does "Ay, there's the rub" memorialise a fungus infection?

Shakespeare can't be reduced to Bridget Jones. The plays embody quite a different, pre-modern notion of art: one that propels them far beyond the "internal" modes of the winsomely personal to a level of intricate engagement with what Holden rightly recognises as the "external" world of governance and power. Among other matters, that involves a project for the ideological construction of the place in which we now live: the entity we still - just about - call "Great Britain". The result is what Bertolt Brecht termed "epic" drama: its purpose is to confront its audience with public, not private, issues. Biographical material is scarcely relevant to those purposes. Granted, there are no enforceable laws to prevent the reading of one kind of art as if it were another, and it might in the end - to save a biographer's face - be more appropriate to talk about different ways of reading and responding, rather than different kinds of art. But it's as well to remember that all texts maintain, in any case, a capacity for exceeding - or confounding - their authors' intentions.

To square up to Shakespeare's plays as accounts of the moral and political stresses and strains attendant on the "Great Britain" project - to insert them, in other words, into both their own and our history - is to acknowledge in them a complexity far greater than the equations of a "this-leads-to-that" biography allow. For what we know about the fate of that project, down to and including the present, gives us a purchase on our own time which must be revealing. Sleepless nights? Sexual jealousy? Booker fodder at best. Taverns? Ale? Fear of the charnel house? We can get that from the footie. Never mind Shakespeare's private life. What his work offers, with unique intensity, is an insight into a culture engaged with the beginning of a world whose end we have inherited. The relation of that end to that beginning is not a matter for fancy fictional alignments. It's time to get real. That's what bards are for.

Terence Hawkes is professor of English at the University of Wales, Cardiff