Atheist, homosexual, rebel, ladies man, Tory, Catholic: the varieties of "Shakespeare" on offer since the first printed biography of the Bard appeared in 1709 are profuse and often bizarre. The late Ted Hughes
even claimed that Shakespeare was a shaman, who visited the former Poet Laureate in a dream to dictate Hughes' (or Shakespeare's?) preposterous Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being
. It therefore comes as some relief to read Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life
and find that it eschews the wilder side of Shakespearean biography.
Honan's book is the result of more than 10 years of research into primary sources dealing with Shakespeare's life and career, and the result is an impressively weighty and scholarly study. Honan is particularly strong on the early years in Stratford, and young William's relationship with his father, as well as the poet's attitude towards the women in his life: his intelligent mother, Mary, his shadowy wife, Anne, his sisters Joan and Margaret, and his two daughters, Susanna and Judith. Honan's touch is less sure when he follows Shakespeare to London, where the biography gets bogged down in interpreting virtually all of the plays in relation to biographical "facts", an approach which has been the subject of much criticism within Shakespeare studies in recent years. But if every age gets the biography of Shakespeare that it deserves, then Honan's version perhaps unwittingly offers us a Shakespeare which catches the spirit of Britain's current post-Thatcherite times.
Honan's Shakespeare is a cautious, astute man in both his professional and personal life. This Shakespeare shows routine deference to both kin and country, cautiously negotiating the political and commercial pitfalls of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, painstakingly learning his craft, and with a constant eye on his carefully marshalled financial assets. Honan's biography is detailed, precise, and very well researched, but it ultimately offers a curiously colourless and uninspired Shakespeare, lacking the passion of the Romantics or even the genius of the Victorians. Perhaps this is, after all, the Shakespeare biography that the end of the 20th century deserves. --Jerry Brotton
this is now the best available life of Shakespeare. Stanley Wells, The Observer 18/10/98