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.
He does this by placing us in Shakespeare's surroundings of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. We smell the horse manure from the streets of Shakespeare's life and witness the people walking through it.
He does this by showing us how the events in Shakespeare's time influenced his writing: the lean to the old religion verse Protestant reform, the forge of the Elizabethan Theater Age with all the competing playhouses and players, the rise and fall of John Shakespeare, the death of Hamnet.
Shakespeare was multi-faceted. He was a practical and pragmatic man who wrote in a spirit of rapid fluidity garnering remarkable insight into the human soul. A rustic turned playwright. Someone as familiar with the breeze of cows as the fury of sexual jealousy.
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.
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
EDITED TO ADD...
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.
Read Mar 2007
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!!!