June 27th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Peter Costello calls it a day

EDITORIAL: New South Wales puts Australian firms first

VICTORIA: The threats to Victoria's electricity and water

GENERAL MOTORS: Restructured GM won't thrive without new mindset

UNITED STATES I: Obama's celebrity-style media spectacle

UNITED STATES II: Cairo speech impressed Western media, not Islamic world

IRAN: US conciliatory approach to Tehran backfires

ASIA/PACIFIC REGION: East Timor consolidates stable democratic government

UNITED STATES: Husband and wife spied for communist Cuba

SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY: How science can diminish humanity

EUTHANASIA: The perils of euthanasia "with safeguards"

MEN AND IDEAS: Bob Santamaria's role in Australia's culture wars

OPINION: The Japanese threat facing Australia in 1942

Failure of stimulus packages (letter)

Russia's population crisis (letter)

IPCC's political agenda (letter)

MEDIA: ABC Chaser's war on common decency

CINEMA: Hollywood morality for an audience of fools - State of Play

BOOKS: SHAKESPEARE'S SHATTERED YOUTH: Laming or Elixir? by Lucy Sullivan

BOOKS: CROSSING HITLER: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand, by Benjamin C. Hett

Books promotion page

SHAKESPEARE'S SHATTERED YOUTH: Laming or Elixir? by Lucy Sullivan

by J.A. Kirkpatrick

News Weekly, June 27, 2009
Portrait of the Bard as a young man

by Lucy Sullivan

(Windsor, NSW: Windrush Press)
Paperback: 308 pages
ISBN: 9780980619805
Rec. price: AUD$25.00

Why another book on Shakespeare, you may ask? Have not his works been analysed countless times before? Well, yes, but there is always room for a fresh approach and new interpretation and that's what Dr Lucy Sullivan's book gives us.

The accepted view of Shakespeare's childhood has been a picture of happy, domestic stability; later of a young man, perhaps a bit boisterous, but nonetheless a happily married, family man. This idealism is far from Dr Sullivan's interpretation of what Shakespeare's early years were like.

Stressful adolescence

She argues that, far from the happy, carefree life so often pictured, Shakespeare experienced a stressful childhood and adolescence, resulting from his father's financial misfortunes and his mother's suggested infidelity.

With two self-absorbed parents who had no time to support and nurture their adolescent son, Shakespeare embarked on a forced marriage with a pregnant Anne Hathaway eight years his senior, rather than his preferred love, Anne Whateley, and became a father of three by the time he was 20.

Elsewhere, Dr Sullivan has written on the failures of modern parents being a determining factor in the crises suffered by their children, arguing that a dysfunctional family leads to a perpetuating cycle of instability in the next generation. Multiple partners, divorce and drugs are no role models for children in our time; in the same way, the turmoil of Shakespeare's fractured home life led to youthful instability and his precipitate and calamitous marriage.

But she asks, as this produced great literature, was it laming or elixir?

It is a new perspective to suggest that Shakespeare's characters in his later plays are not referenced by the political figures and events of the day but rather spring from Shakespeare's own personal experiences and the "abominable situation" as Dr Sullivan interprets his early life.

It also explains Shakespeare's focus on and sympathy for his youthful characters - Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet spring instantly to mind. A depressed and suicidal Hamlet is no different from the disturbed teenagers of today. Similarly, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night deal with parent/child relationships and the perils of transition from adolescence to adulthood.

In my local library, among the books dealing with Shakespeare's plays, there are 10 books on the role of women in the plays, but there is sparse commentary on the sonnets. Dr Sullivan's work fills an important need.

Her analyses of the sonnets are meticulously researched, fresh and illuminating. She considers them Shakespeare's emotional autobiography in "diary" form; so, for a Shakespearean scholar, she suggests the sonnets should be read consecutively. The average reader might find it more rewarding to just "dip into" those that are old favourites or those under the various headings that attract them - "Preserving Beauty", "Rivalries and Jealousies", "The Dark Lady" and so on.

In Dr Sullivan's reading of the sonnets, Shakespeare's focus of sexual passion is the Dark Lady, which explains the sexual jealousy when Shakespeare accuses Southampton of stealing his mistress. In sonnets XL to XLII it is the bitterness of the eternal triangle and his love betrayed, both by the Dark Lady and Southampton. Sonnet XLII begins:

"That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I lov'd her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief..."

So Dr Sullivan does not follow the modern fad of reading into the sonnets a purely homosexual relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare. But she contends that Shakespeare uses "love" in the then-accepted Elizabethan sense of "loyalty" or "gratitude".

This explains Shakespeare's intense attachment to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, whom he saw as a patron and a means to better himself and rise above his own social position. The actors and theatrical world with whom Shakespeare associated were, at that time, regarded as near the bottom rung of the social ladder and as he wished to "rise above his station" then friendship with nobility was the way to achieve it.

Shakespeare's sense of inferiority and his desire to be accepted in a world socially and intellectually superior to his own are a constant theme in the sonnets. Sadly, it seems he finally realised that the barrier against class mobility was too great to overcome. This is most poignantly expressed in sonnets XXXVI and XXXVII.

As we know so few facts about Shakespeare's life that are undisputed, there is continuing room for conjecture, speculation and personal interpretation, and Dr Sullivan claims that is all she has set out to do.

Shakespeare's "shattered youth" as the genesis for his later plays and his fervent desire for social acceptability are her two main themes and these, she acknowledges, are simply hypotheses. But they are hypotheses based on careful research and intelligent surmise.

Dr Sullivan's book is very readable, challenging and strikingly original. Anyone interested to in reviewing his or her own interpretations of Shakespeare should not miss it.

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