I can hardly say that Peter Levi is `the best' Shakespeare biographer-there must be a thousand of them, and I've only read a handful. Besides, I doubt that any one commentator is likely to engage all, or even very much, of a mind so various. But Levi's is a very good book with a particular virtue: it is a poet's response to a poet: recall Edmund Wilson (channeling Thoreau) on "the shock of recognition."
The poet in Levi makes him particularly helpful with a play like Loves's Labour's Lost-about the most explosive piece of versification Shakespeare ever hatched and of all his plays, I would have thought perhaps the least accessible to a modern audience. Levi makes his case that it is "a masterpiece" and concludes (this surprised me, but I am open to it)-concludes that "this play is particularly suitable even today to be played by intelligent amateurs..." Except he adds: "...who are also on intimate terms,"-which adds a whole new layer of possibility. I wonder what he would have thought of the Kenneth Branagh movie version.
As a poet, Levi has one important quality that he shares with poets like Auden and Coleridge-a sensitivity to the broader culture, together with a fund of knowledge lightly worn. Once in a while his penchant takes him almost to the brink of self parody, as in this priceless bit:
"The refrain of the spring song, `Cuckoo, jug, jug, pu we, to witta woo!, is a more elaborate set of bird noises than any earlier example I recall in English. I wonder whether someone has been reading Aristophanes' /Birds/ with their extraordinary noises: the `/tio tio tinx/' and so on. Or was this a foreign musical tradition? At any rate Shakespeare adopted it gleefully. In French /turelure/ was a pagpiipe but /turlut/ was a skylark, and English larks in seventeenth-century poems sing `tirra lirra': `Tirry-tirry leerers upward fly.' The most elaborate French example is by Du Bartas..."
...all the more remarkable because not one of those bits is actual Shakespeare. I think it may his poet's ear that also gives Levi a special feel for dramatic nuance. Speaking of the inimitable "porter scene" from Macbeth, Levi makes the point that the low comedy has an unexpectedly chilly edge: "Shakespeare has simply darkened the scene where he seemed to lighten it, just as he did with Pompey and Abhorson in the prison in /Measure for Meausre,/ and with the gravedigging scene in /Hamlet/. There are a thousand more such gems, not all convincing (I think he overrates /Two Gentlemen of Verona/ and underrates /Much Ado/, but let that be).
From time to time, Levi enters into the game of speculation over the unanswerable questions: Shakespeare in the lost years of the 1580s, Shakespeare's patronage, Shakespeare's possible Catholicism. Levi is not uninteresting here, but this is a game anyone can play and no can win-and in any event, newer "research" on many of these points has outstripped him. Indeed in general I suspect it is fair to say that Levi is better as a critic than as a pure biographer. No matter. This is a fine book that deserves a place in any well-chosen Shakespeare library.