The Biography
Peter Ackroyd
Doubleday, $32.50, 500 pp.

In 1998 the American academic Park Honan published Shakespeare: A Life, a modest biography that reminded the literary world that, alongside the mass of peripheral material and speculation thrown up by centuries of scholarship, there has been a steady growth in what is actually known about William Shakespeare. Two years later Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare followed the same approach, meticulously examining all the known facts and confirming that many of them conflict with the traditional picture of Shakespeare. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Ungentle Shakespeare) highlighted the contrast. She drew the portrait of a wary, ambitious, and effective man of business, who pursued debtors relentlessly through the courts and was expert in the law, dodging taxes, and avoiding obligatory attendance at Protestant services. His rise was hard-working and meteoric: by his early forties he had become the leading court dramatist, a best-selling author, and a box-office draw. Yet all three writers point out that he ran a surprising risk for such a canny operator: throughout his life his close friends, patrons, and colleagues were for the most part dissident Catholics. In 2004 Stephen Greenblatt brought out his phenomenally successful Will in the World, which brings the new context, particularly the unfamiliar world of persecuted Catholicism, vividly to life.

Honan sees the biographical approach to Shakespeare as essentially collaborative—a developing, collective portrait, “best...when we are not under the illusion it is to be finished.” The title of Peter Ackroyd’s five-hundred-page Shakespeare: The Biography is less tentative. Ackroyd flings his net over the whole contentious, contradictory world of Shakespeare scholarship, brings in a massive haul, and spends his book rummaging enjoyably through it all. In leisurely, speculative style he turns over the many questions that have vexed scholars for centuries-Shakespeare’s mysterious youth, the acting companies he may have joined, his enigmatic character, the likelihood of professional collaboration, the complex business of dating the various plays, the nature of Elizabethan audiences, actors, and theaters, the atmosphere of sixteenth-century London and Stratford, the question mark over Shakespeare’s retirement. An often brilliant biographer, this is Ackroyd’s characteristic approach—dynamic, inclusive, cumulative, panoramic. But does it work with Shakespeare?

The great strength of the book lies in its evocation of the tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and social milieux of Stratford and London. Shakespeare’s birth is introduced in typically discursive fashion: “A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly.” London is “already an ancient place,” half its population “under the age of twenty,” its unpredictable crowds compared at the time to a “swarm of bees.” Ackroyd brings out the sense of fellowship among the group of players who remained Shakespeare’s close friends throughout his life; he was godfather to their children, they witnessed his will; he notes that the actor Richard Burbage named his children William, Anne, and Juliet. He assembles a convincing body of evidence for Shakespeare as a witty, much-loved, convivial companion in a world where there was little privacy. In his concern to present the Bard as a professional man of the theater, one of a fellowship, Ackroyd spends pages laboriously deducing which parts might have been conceived for particular actors, and which could have been played by Shakespeare himself. Ackroyd’s painstaking reconstruction of numerous fragmentary historical links between actors, audiences, and patrons effectively demolishes the theory that another man could have written the plays.

Nonetheless, the book has its weaknesses. Theorizing is dull, so Ackroyd resorts to the method rejected by Honan—guesses become facts. On one page Ackroyd proposes that Shakespeare may have joined the Earl of Pembroke’s Men; a little later he is actually on tour with them. As a result, the evocation of Shakespeare’s background becomes a great impressionistic feat, but in the process loses the attraction of scrupulous historical accuracy which distinguishes Honan and Wood.

Moreover, Ackroyd’s style, vivid and precise when he writes about tangible things, is less certain when he tackles the plays and poems. And as he follows one literary theory after another, he inevitably contradicts himself: Shakespeare’s plays are at one point collaborative, at another seamlessly organic. Some of Ackroyd’s pronouncements would have mystified sixteenth-century readers, among them his verdict on Shakespeare as a moralist: “He had no ‘morality’ in the conventional sense, since morals are determined by dislike and antipathy.” Acutely, Ackroyd highlights certain motifs that run through Shakespeare’s work. They include exile; sympathy with failure; what Ackroyd rightly terms the “Catholic” distinction between a leader and his office; interest in oath-taking; divided loyalty; the murder of innocence; unquiet conscience; disguise. But like many scholars before him, Ackroyd ignores the political implication of these motifs, which would have been of intense interest to audiences at the time. Instead he relates them to Shakespeare’s own private concerns.

This leads to the major omission in Ackroyd’s otherwise compendious work. If Shakespeare’s known patrons (Strange, Southampton, and Rutland) were all either Catholic or suspected of Catholicism, and if Shakespeare, as Ackroyd claims, addressed himself to their interests, then the position of Catholicism at the time deserves at least as much attention as Ackroyd gives to the minutiae of Elizabethan stagecraft. (As Commonweal readers know, this is a subject I have written on myself: “The Catholic Bard,” June 17, 2005.) Yet this dangerous oppositional stance is treated much as Catholicism might be today: as just one more relatively unimportant aspect of Christian belief. He gives repeated evidence of its prevalence. The actors themselves were notorious for their “papistry”; a high proportion of their afternoon audience was composed of the largely Catholic body of students from the Inns of Court; no fewer than six of Shakespeare’s acquaintance were executed for their Catholicism; his purchase of London’s Thames-side Blackfriars Gatehouse toward the end of his life allowed it to continue as a Catholic safe house. Ackroyd is “perplexed” by this, but no more. He seems unaware, or perhaps unconcerned, that his book has in fact drawn a picture of widespread disaffection in every area of life in which Shakespeare was involved. And this leads him to some other surprising omissions. As the author of the equally encyclopedic London: The Biography, Ackroyd is the one writer one might expect to have noticed that a major Southwark landmark is absent from all the studies of Shakespeare’s residence near the Globe Theatre. This is the Catholic stronghold of Montague House next to Southwark Bridge belonging to England’s most influential Catholic courtier, a clearing house for Catholic exiles and center of gossip from abroad, and the closest point to the Globe for libraries and patronage.

Throughout, Ackroyd, unlike Wood and Greenblatt, leans on the traditional mainstream of Shakespearean scholarship, sidelining the increasing likelihood that Shakespeare was involved in the Catholic resistance which formed an essential part of the Earl of Essex’s power base. Those who are interested in this crucial entry-point to Shakespeare’s life and work will have to turn to Peter Milward’s Shakespeare’s Catholic Background, to Ian Wilson’s Shakespeare: The Evidence, or to the work of scholars such as Dennis Taylor, Velma Richmond, or Lucy Wooding. Honan’s point about the collaborative picture holds good. Ackroyd has written a vivid and fascinating life of Shakespeare—but The Biography is still some way off.



Related: Was He or Wasn't He? by James T. Noonan Jr.
He Made It All Up: Jesse Lander reviews James Shapiro's Contested Will
Conceits & Ribaldries Included: Celia Wren reviews Paul Collins's The Book of William


Published in the 2006-04-21 issue: View Contents
Clare Asquith is the author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (Public Affairs).
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