Shakespeare : The biography

by Peter Ackroyd

Hardcover, 2005




New York : Nan A. Talese, c2005.


Biographer and novelist Ackroyd brings William Shakespeare to life in the manner of a contemporary rather than a biographer. His 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. Writing as though we are observing Shakespeare and his circle of friends, patrons, managers, and fellow actors and writers, Ackroyd is able to see Shakespeare's genius from within, so we feel that Ackroyd the writer merges with Shakespeare the writer, the poet, the man; and thus with great sympathy and clarity we experience the way in which Shakespeare worked.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

Most biographies, John Updike has observed, “are really just novels with indexes.” That seems especially true with lives of Shakespeare. Peter Ackroyd’s rather arrogantly subtitled Shakespeare: The Biography, although its flights of fancy are far less extreme than Asquith’s, also trespasses
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upon the terrain of fiction. So, “we may imagine [Shakespeare] to have been a singularly competitive small boy” and “no doubt easily bored.” As a man, he was apparently “given to lustfulness but fastidious in other particulars,” something which, we are told, “by a curious chance consorts well with the imagery of the plays where there are plentiful references to bawdiness, but where there is also evidence of a general sensitivity to unpleasant sights or smells.” And so on, ad infinitum.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member billiecat
Ackroyd uses his considerable skills to evoke time and place in this biography to present as close to a living, breathing Shakespeare as is possible when so much is unknown. That he does this without presenting speculation as fact is no mean feat. Compare this excellent biography with "Will in the
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World" or worse, "In Search of Shakespeare," both of which make unwarranted assumptions about Shakespeare through an examination of his work, which is like arguing after reading "The Metamorphosis" that Kafka must have believed he was a bug. In contrast Ackroyd, the quintessential Londoner, takes what is actually known about Shakespeare, places it in context of what is known about Elizabethan and Jacobean London, and brings his subject to life without making him a fictional character. While drawing appropriate inferences where possible, Ackroyd stays respectfully clear of speculation about Shakespeare's religious beliefs, his sexuality, and his family life, choosing instead to focus on the more solid ground of his life as a professional dramatist and poet. By doing so, he blows away much of the Shakespearen myth. "He was a man, take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again."
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LibraryThing member idiotgirl
Listened to as an auddiobook, read by Simon Vance. Wonderful reading, accessible book. In the past year, I've read Greenblatt's Will in the World and Kermodes book on Shakespeare. It's hard for me to separate the reading (by Simon Vance) from the book, but this was very accessible and reading.
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Already has me going back to Shakespeare. I read Greenblatt, but I'm thinking about listening to the book as well.

For Shakespeare, it's very interesting for me, who is interested in the art of biography. Here you have very, very little to go with. So what do you say, It's all about relating the literary words to the bare facts. I don't have a final vote. This was engaging, and I want to go back and get a better opinion. But Simon Vance is a very engaging reader!!!
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LibraryThing member ukbar
Wonderful book, full of details. Definitely on the side of those who that think Shakespeare the man was Shakespeare the author not some beard for a nobleman or some other writer.
LibraryThing member Wubsy
I found this a wonderfully entertaining insight into Shakespeare's murky life. Ackroyd writes with so much enthusiasm, and is a perfect companion to the Bard. I will likely return to this in the future for inspiration or clarification when dealing with a facet of William's life.
LibraryThing member lunarcheck
Peter Ackroyd is the biographer of London(!?) as well as of Shakespeare. It is an interesting read, very professionally done, but somehow you are left not feeling convinced. As seafoamrose said Ackroyd pushes the closet Catholic theory a little too hard. Anyway an enjoyable and accessible
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introduction to Shakespeare the man.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
My heart always sings when I pick up a Peter Ackroyd biography. I expect that I shall read an interesting account of the person, but one that does not push any particular bias. I have yet to be disappointed and, certainly, this biography of William Shakespeare never looked likely to buck the trend.
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Mr Ackroyd respects Shakespeare's position at the pinnacle of British writers without glossing over the deficiencies that any human must possess.

The information concerning the life of Shakespeare is not sufficient to produce a definite story from the cradle to the grave so, Peter Ackroyd gives us what definite knowledge exists and adds the gossip and rumour that surrounds the man. What I particularly like, is that the fact and surmise are clearly separated. He sets out the basis for any unsubstantiated details, gives any supporting evidence and leaves the reader to decide how much credence to give to it.

When one is writing about someone who lived in a very different age to our own, it is important that the historical background is set. This book does this in an admirable fashion; the reader is not lectured, but the detail is all there. One other point which is vital when discussing an earlier age, is to see it through the eyes of the moral standards of the time. Ackroyd, by standing aloft from his subject, reports, without any judgement.

The greatest compliment that one can give to any biography is that it sends the reader scurrying to re-read the poems and re-watch the plays of William Shakespeare. I recently read a fictional biography of the Bard and, at the end, felt dis-satisfied and not drawn to re-engage with Mr Shakespeare's work: with this book, I was re-watching the plays before completing the book. Not only does this work bring the man to life, it adds a new facet to the plays and sonnets.

I would imagine that this biography has enough detail to be worth the time for a Shakespeare expert to read,: without question,it is written in such a way that someone, such as myself, with only the most basic schoolboy awareness of the man and his works can read, enjoy and learn. Thank you, Mr. Ackroyd, for bringing William Shakespeare to life for one ignorant reader.
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LibraryThing member sageness
At the halfway mark, I'm still completely ambivalent. I cringe every time he claims to know what Shakespeare was thinking or intending, I squint sidelong every time he categorically refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a homoerotic/queer subtext in the biography -- even while discussing
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Marlowe and Edward II!!, and I boggle every time the chronology established at the opening is turned on its head, so that previously discussed factors are dismissed in order to discuss these new ones, as if multiple influences are unable to coexist.

And yet, Ackroyd gives great insight into the setting and *context* of the plays and poems, as well as to the historical bits and bobs that remain.

I would be a kinder audience if there were a bit less stating querulous assertions as if they're commonly accepted facts. As it is, I feel like scrawling YMMV across every single one of them.

I will say that if nothing else, this book has made me long for a freaking TIMELINE of when which players were where. /confusion


Okay, I've finished it, and my fundamental problem remains the structure of the book. Ackroyd groups his chapters according to WS's present professional affiliation -- whether by company or by theatre or by place (eg. early and late life in Stratford) -- instead of by chronology, so what you get is a confusing, redundant, contradictory mess of different takes on the same time period as seen in different venues. Worse, each chapter propagates new theories and hypothetical relationships on top of the ones already given. It is a mess.

GLBT_interest tag: Ackroyd finally got to the queer content (and Kit Marlowe) about 3/4 of the way through, but his entire tone of address is as if he's unwilling holding a pair of tongs bearing a smoking bag of dog turds as far away from himself as humanly possible. He then counters any possible affiliation WS could have had with such "pederasts" by proclaiming WS's sexual success with the ladies. Worse, if you ask me, is he presents a bitter, lifelong rivalry on WS's part against Kit Marlowe, without giving ANY evidence of Marlowe and Shakespeare being anything more than competing writers in the same business, at times working in the same company. If there's historical enmity between them, he damn well didn't quote evidence of it. Instead, he's clearly projecting his own homophobia onto WS in order to sneer at Marlowe. Hello, shoddy scholarship. (Of course, this is a mass market popular bio, not a peer-reviewed scholarly article. But I am annoyed.)

In sum: the basic facts presented are fabulous...if you can weed them out of all the unfounded conjecture. The bibliography looks worth reading.
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LibraryThing member sloopjonb
As a survey of life in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, this is a pretty good and interesting read. As a life of Shakespeare it suffers from the same fault as all the others - the man has gone beyond recall, and the biography is stuffed full of the usual ifs and buts and
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it-is-not-unreasonable-to-suppose-thats that bedevil all attempts to find him. Ackroyd is fully aware of the folly of trying to find the man through his work, but even so he succumbs to the temptation now and then.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
Lots of detail from not much data. Paints a plausible picture of the man & his plays & poetry.
Read Mar 2007
LibraryThing member jerry-book
On little evidence and gleanings from the plays the author is able to build an interesting portrait of the bard.
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
A first rate look at the life of England's most famous dramatist. The details are amazing, even the trivial details are interesting. The author makes no claims to know things that are not known, and often will discuss all the differing views on what a piece of evidence means, and discuss the
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likelihood of each idea. He examines the youth of Shakespeare in some detail, and discusses the ideas about his relationship with his wife. He does not jump feet first into the fray of who wrote Shakespeare's plays, but instead moves ahead with the assumption that Shakespeare himself wrote Shakespeare's plays, while at times discussing the reasons why the other candidates don't work. Upon reading this book, it is difficult to see where those other candidates came from, or even the idea that there was someone other than Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare's plays. Far from being unmentioned in his own time as is often posited, Ackroyd assembles an impressive array of mentions of Shakespeare by his contemporaries, both praise and dismissal. Though he is by no means as often mentioned as many of the other playwrights, Ackryod details the particulars of Shakespeare's life as they are known to demonstrate that the man lived a relatively private and less flamboyant existence than the other playwrights, and also that he is mentioned as the author of his plays repeatedly throughout his life. He also discusses the education and likely apprenticeship of the playwright, and finds the idea that he was illiterate or nearly so to be lacking any evidence or support. A must read for all fans of the bard, because it helps understand his plays better by putting them in the context not only of the time, but the place in which they were written. The main downside is the length, which is daunting, and some of the details are not necessary. But with such well-written prose and such extensive research, that can be forgiven. Just plan on devoting some real time to it.
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LibraryThing member tuckerresearch
A standard biography of Shakespeare, with the lucid, engaging prose of Peter Ackroyd. There are few endnotes, but mostly the sources Ackroyd uses are mentioned in the text. There is a serviceable bibliography. Nice images. Ackroyd is a Stratfordian, and offers reliable, solid evidence that
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Shakspere the man from Stratford-upon-Avon was the actor AND playwright Shakespeare of London. (No evidence that will convince the average, paranoiac, anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theorist, however, but convincing to me.) Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the playwright are brought to life in almost novelist-like detail here (as much as is possible with the oftentimes scanty documentation of Shakespeare's life). The story is interesting and essential. To me, this is the essential one-volume life of Shakespeare for the general reader for this generation (much like Rowse's was a generation or two ago).
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