Although, as Peter Ackroyd writes, "without London there would have been no Shakespeare," it was Stratford, where Shakespeare was born, "that remained the center of his being." He continued to have close ties with Stratford through the years it was where his wife, children and parents lived, where he purchased property from time to time, and where he eventually retired and died. In the dazzling Shakespeare: The Biography, Ackroyd, whose previous subjects include Dickens, Blake, T.S. Eliot, Chaucer and Thomas More, seems to know everything worth knowing about his subject. Beyond that, he possesses a rare ability to convey in a very readable way what it was like to be Shakespeare and to make us feel we know in considerable detail what life in Elizabethan London was like. Moreover, he uses carefully reasoned analysis to help the reader through the thicket of the many theories abut his subject.
Shakespeare "grew up with a profound sense of ambiguity," writes Ackroyd. "It is one of the informing principles of both his life and his art." He says it is wrong to look for a personal motive behind Shakespeare's work. "Nothing in his life and career gives any reason to suggest that he chose a theme or story with any specific intention other than to entertain. He had no message.'" Even Shakespeare's poems should be regarded "as a performance. . . . All of them are informed by a shaping will, evincing an almost impersonal authority and command of the medium." Shakespeare was a practical person and a shrewd businessman. Although familiar with the classics he read in school, he was not a scholar, but "learned as much as he needed to learn" for his own purposes. "He was a dramatist. He seems in fact to have distrusted philosophy, rational discourse and sententiousness in all its forms. Abstract language was his abhorrence." He did not officially have opinions or religious beliefs. "He subdued his nature to whatever in the drama confronted him. He was, in that sense, above faith."Ackroyd also explains the rise and the importance of the theater in Elizabethan London. At the time, "[a]s the Church became desacralized, so urban society became profoundly ritualistic and spectacular. This is of the utmost importance for any understanding of Shakespeare's genius. He thrived in a city where dramatic spectacle became the primary means of understanding reality." It was not a print culture. "The works of Shakespeare should not be taken out of their context," Ackroyd warns, "since it is there they acquire their true meaning."Ackroyd says it is also important to note also that most of Shakespeare's plays were revised or rewritten. For a variety of reasons, including adding material to plays that would be performed at Court and changing cast members, "his plays were always in a provisional or fluid shape." Those who would prefer a definitive text are likely to be disappointed because "we may fairly assume that each play was slightly different at every performance."Ackroyd's masterful biography of the bard is incredibly informative and a joy to read.
Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.