A new, annotated edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories has just appeared in two volumes; ditto a new best-selling “biography” of Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.
Neither one is urgently needed. Two scholarly editions of the Holmes stories already exist. As for Shakespeare bios, there’s at least one new one every year, though no new facts about the Stratford man have been found in the last ninety years.
But so what? We can’t get enough of these two great fictional characters, Holmes of Baker Street and Shakespeare of Stratford. It was nearly seventy years ago that Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars, a group dedicated to applying Holmes’s methods to the Holmes stories and, pretending to take them as fact, playfully “deducing” solutions to the problems they pose.
The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a somewhat careless writer who left a lot of loose ends and even contradictions in his yarns as narrated by Dr. Watson. The Baker Street Irregulars treated Dr. Watson as the real author and, with mock solemnity, tried to figure out how many times he was married, why his wife (or one of them) calls him “James” when his name is John, and why his old war wound is recalled as first in his leg and then, in a later story, in his shoulder.
The real solution to all these mysteries — that Conan Doyle wrote in haste and never looked back — is excluded by the rules of the game. Some people derive an enormous amount of fun from all this, and it’s easy to see why. I started reading Holmes when I was eleven, and I still reread all the stories every few years. The temptation to regard them as history is almost irresistible. Holmes is still one of the most magnetic characters ever imagined — so magnetic you almost forget he’s imaginary.
Conan Doyle had the gift of the born writer: the ability to put an unforgettable voice on a page. You can’t get enough of Holmes; you want to know everything about him, though all there is to “know” is what Dr. Watson tells you. We “know” that Holmes went to a university, for instance, but we aren’t told where. Such biographical data are frustratingly meager.
The Baker Street Irregulars have an odd counterpart in Shakespeare scholarship. Again, the biographical record is inadequate, and huge gaps must be filled in by deduction or guesswork. The only rule of the game — and a rigid rule it is — is that you must posit that the Stratford man is the real author. Then you build an edifice of speculation around the dates of his birth, marriage, death, and a few odds and ends.
As with Holmes, we hunger to know more about Shakespeare. I read dozens of “biographies,” vainly hoping to get closer to him, before I realized that they were all written about the wrong man. Their “Shakespeare” was, like Holmes, a beloved but imaginary character.
Professor Greenblatt’s new biography is charmingly written and worthy of the Baker Street Irregulars in its ingenious deductions. He supposes, for example, that Shakespeare witnessed the grisly execution of a Jew and was thereby inspired to write The Merchant of Venice. He further surmises that Hamlet somehow issued from the death in 1596 of Shakespeare’s little son Hamnet. These are stretches, but Professor Greenblatt is carried away by the sheer creative pleasure of rounding out the character he has imagined.
“It is a capital mistake to form a deduction before you have all the facts,” as Holmes says. But this maxim, applied consistently, would put Shakespeare scholarship out of business. The first fact you have to get right, if you want to write a biography of the author, is who the author was.
The real author, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, created an imaginary character when he put the name “William Shakespeare” on a published poem in 1593. This was “certified” when his collected plays were published under that name, with a portrait of the nominal author, in 1623. Nearly two centuries later scholars started digging in Stratford for hard information about the man they’d mistaken (through no fault of their own) for the author, and the game of “discovering” Shakespeare continues to this day.
What the heck. It’s innocent fun, and nobody really gets hurt.