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Scholars and critics can agree on a number of select dates: Shakespeare was born in late April 1564; he died on April 23, 1616 - perhaps exactly on his fifty-third birthday; Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare married on December 1, 1582. Much of the rest, however, remains mere conjecture. Yet, as witnessed even by Ackroyd's immediate contemporaries - Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" (2004), Marjorie Garber's "Shakespeare After All" (2004), and Harold Bloom's "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" (1999) come to mind, for example - the centrality of Shakespearean studies and commentary has retained a place in literary criticism and biography since the "rediscovery" of Shakespeare's work in the late eighteenth century. Opening a book entitled "Shakespeare: The Biography", the reader comes to Ackroyd's work with some fundamental questions: Has Ackroyd uncovered obscure significant documents and evidence overlooked by previous scholars, perhaps the dramatist's personal diary? How will he synthesize over 200 years of scholarship and writing in 592 pages, thus justifying the unapologetic and somewhat hubristic subtitle of "The Biography"?
Quite simply, Ackroyd subverts such expectations with his commitment to a certain style of biographical writing, following a formula that has proven successful in his other wide-canvas studies including "London: The Biography" (2001) and "Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination" (2002) - provide enough of the smells, flavors and brutality of historical context and the subject emerges at pace. And, on this score, Ackroyd displays an enviable talent in rendering Elizabethan England for a contemporary audience, upstaged only by his subtle but probing discussions of the role theatre played in Elizabethan society, how it both influenced and was influenced by princes, players and paymasters alike. Though Ackroyd never loses sight of how his subject would have navigated this complex and uncertain historical milieu, more often than not Shakespeare himself remains largely in the background, a bit-player in a much larger drama. For all of Ackroyd's unqualified discussions of the dramatist's "genius," the subject of his study (the life of the "bio"-graphy) comes through mostly muted.
While the reader will recognize the paucity of attention to both the plays and sonnets on an interpretive level, Ackroyd consciously places the art in conversation with the anecdotal, never allowing the art to somehow eclipse the exceedingly pragmatic and ambitious artist. This has two immediate consequences for the book: 1) Shakespeare is not the Shakespeare of Greenblatt or Bloom, a Shakespeare of the popular imagination inseparable from his posthumous reputation; and 2) Ackroyd's Shakespeare remains a thoroughly historical being, about whom the historical record is almost prohibitively void of fact and detail. Thus Ackroyd has to hedge as a matter of course, as each interesting discussion or vignette is either introduced or followed by disclaimers such as, "It is at least suggestive. And a pretty story does no harm" or "The biographer can thus explore a number of possible Shakespearian identities without traducing the essential nature of the man." While the reader appreciates such qualifications, they do have the effect of highlighting the impossibility of writing a singular work to serve as the authoritative statement on Shakespeare, who will remain as much myth as man when attempting to account for his unmatched influence upon English literature and culture.
No doubt Ackroyd is a deft stylist and he has a strong sense of the biographical form, as both aspects of his writing come forth in "Shakespeare: The Biography." This, along with its accessible and engaging discussions of Early Modern English life, make Ackroyd's work deserving of a place on the shelf of Shakespearean biography and criticism, though it more appropriately supplements, not supplants, a much wider breadth of work attempting to account for the phenomenon of Shakespeare.
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Writing about the life of William Shakespeare is a bit like trying to catch an echo with your hands. Public records verify the existence of a William Shakespeare who was born and raised in Stratford and then became a resident of London. However, there is no direct proof that this man, the son of a modestly affluent glover, was responsible for the plays and poems that have immortalized his name. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this uncertainty, Shakespearean biography has proved a fertile scholarly enterprise since the publication of Edward Dowden's 1875 book, SHAKESPEARE: A CRITICAL STUDY OF HIS MIND AND ART. Among the thousands of biographies that have ensued, two groundbreaking analytical studies, released in recent years by Stephen Greenblatt and Margery Garber, raise the question of authorship. (Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford de Vere are among those suggested as possible authors for this substantial body of work.) Peter Ackroyd's SHAKESPEARE: A BIOGRAPHY appears, then, at a time when matters of attribution are a source of contention.
Well-known for his spirited biographies of Sir Thomas More, Blake, Dickens and T. S. Eliot, Ackroyd assumes that the Shakespeare of public record is indeed the man who wrote the plays and poems. This approach is neither naïve nor uninformative; his aim throughout is to illustrate how the works themselves illuminate the writer's lived experience as a confident, enterprising man of his day. Thus, the book jacket accurately boasts, "[Ackroyd's] method is to position the playwright in the context of his world, exploring everything from Stratford's humble town to its fields of wildflowers; discerning influences on the plays from unexpected quarters; and entering London with the playwright as modern theatre, as we know it, is just beginning to emerge."
One of SHAKESPEARE's many virtues is its consideration of the rich and varied contexts of village and city life in sixteenth-century England. We learn, for example, that the flora and fauna of Stratford-upon-Avon (a street along the river) is conversant with the extensive references to weeds and wildflowers in Shakespeare's plays; his lifelong proximity to water made him especially attentive to its tides and occasional floods --- images also prevalent in his work; and his father's trade as a glover probably informed the writer's intimate and complex metaphors about gloves.
This approach is interesting in itself. But Ackroyd further suggests that the playwright's social, cultural and religious views were symptomatic of his time. If the preservation of Shakespeare's childhood home reveals a situation that allowed little privacy, this indicates the lack of privacy afforded to most people of that time; if Shakespeare's father occasionally violated a strict regulation in village law and was fined, his struggle to balance individual expression with social responsibility was a challenge for others, too; and if Shakespeare's ambiguous sexuality is suggested strongly in plays and sonnets, this reveals a world in which labels regarding sexual identity were not as fixed as they are today. In short, the history of one man becomes a history of a nation --- and an age.
Handsomely printed and carefully constructed from a staggering breadth of sources, SHAKESPEARE is an effective synthesis of first-hand observations and astute paraphrase. Whereas Ackroyd is clearly conversant with Shakespeare's work, he is comparatively less intimate with primary source documents. Almost nowhere does he cite original public records but instead relies on the well-documented research of other scholars. This tendency should not impair novices or armchair historians, but will prove undoubtedly troublesome for scholars of this subject and period. Occasionally, too, Ackroyd's language is disturbingly evasive. Consider the following passage:
"The writer of the sonnets seems to have been touched by the fear and horror of venereal disease, and some biographers have even suggested that Shakespeare himself died from a related venereal condition. Nothing in Shakespeare's life or character would exclude the possibility."
As relevant as this point may be, Ackroyd does not indicate how such fear and horror are evident in the sonnets; nor does he provide a footnote for at least a partial list of biographers who suggest the writer died of venereal disease. Finally, the last sentence in the passage is at once tantalizing and aggravating --- it hints more than it reveals.
Notwithstanding these complaints, SHAKESPEARE: A BIOGRAPHY is a worthy addition to the mountain heap of other Shakespeare biographies. Ackroyd's lively, elegant prose is wonderfully readable, and his knowledge of the plays and poems is consistent and illuminating. Anyone eager to get acquainted with the life of Shakespeare and, by extension, with England as it straddled the end of the middle ages and the dawn of the Renaissance, will find in these pages a warm, trustworthy voice.
--- Reviewed by Tony Leuzzi