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If ever an intellectual pursuit courted insanity, it is the biographical study of Shakespeare. The greatest writer in our literature is impossible to know.

The documentary legacy does supply some bald information about his professional and financial affairs, and some bits of gossip about his social and private life. However, it reveals nothing, or anyway nothing reliable, about his personality, or about his friendships, or about his daily habits of existence. The most outlandish theories about the authorship of his plays, and the wildest claims about his career, endure because the evidence is too meagre to disprove them, or to inhibit their proponents from piling speculation on speculation.

His friend and rival, Ben Jonson, in a poem for the posthumous edition of Shakespeare's works, attests that the engraver of the dome-headed author on the title-page has "hit the face" to the life, but the picture gives no sense of his inner self. No other major literary figure of his era, and none since it, is so inscrutable.

The only way that has been found round the problem - other than the forgery of docu-ments to fill the holes - is to extract evidence of Shakespeare's life and views from the texts of his plays and poems. It is a doomed enter-prise. Even his ostensibly autobiographical sonnets present a personality so elusive that scholars cannot agree whether it is a man's or a woman's love that the poet craves. We do not have a clue who the "Master W.H." to whom he addressed them was, though, as on all Shakespearian fronts, there has been no shortage of confident answers.

In the plays, by contrast, the characters could not be more vivid. Yet Shakespeare's entry into their experiences creates its own biographical temptations. I have heard one distinguished historian declare it incon-ceivable that the man who wrote Henry V did not fight in a war, and another wonder whether Theseus's description of his hounds in A Midsummer Night's Dream could have been composed by someone who had not hunted. Enoch Powell was certain that the history plays could have been written only by someone who, like him, had been near the centre of power. The trouble is that by the same token Shakespeare must have been a traveller, a sailor, a rambler, a swimmer, an insomniac...

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