A Life
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A meticulously researched, lucidly presented, but oddly undramatic life of English literature’s elusive icon. Bardolaters hoping for more speculation about the Dark Lady’s identity or adventurous hypotheses of the “missing years” before London will get a refreshing cold shower from this up-to-date, strictly factual life. Veteran British biographer Honan (professor emeritus of English at the University of Leeds; Jane Austen, 1988, etc.) pitches in with Shakespearean studies’ slow work to overturn the romantic tide of mythologizing, garbled oral tradition, and basic errors surrounding the poet ever since Aubrey’s gossipy anecdotography in his Restoration-era Brief Lives. With the current accumulation of unearthed Elizabethan documents, Honan’s work has a solid footing in the era. Mapping out Shakespeare’s post-Reformation Stratford, the author analyzes both his father’s business and civic affairs, his family’s ties to recusant Midlands Catholics, and his mother’s and wife’s personalities—at least as far as can be inferred from official documents such as wills. Honan also goes into detail about a grammar school education (and how it would have formed the basis of Shakespeare’s tutelage) before he suggests that Will left to become something like a teacher-cum-actor in Lancashire (if “William Shakeshafte,” in the employ of Alexander de Hoghton, is indeed the Bard). Picking up his trail in London, Honan’s treatment of Shakespeare’s career in the tumultuous Elizabethan theater is grounded in documentary evidence wherever possible, with suppositions about Shakespeare’s attitudes to his fellow actors and contemporary tastes (such as for child actors) always carefully qualified. By the end, although Honan is impartial about the dogmatic conflicts of Shakespeare’s times, he does not approach the final question of Shakespeare’s personal religious convictions—as Aubrey noted, he was accused of having “died a papist.” Still, this life objectively scrutinizes the public individual rather than the inner man. Synthesizing current scholarship, Honan is as likely to quote from official documents, from church records and business papers, or from law court testimonies, as from Shakespeare’s works for his portrait. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-811792-2
Page count: 460pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


NonfictionTHE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN by Jerry Brotton
by Jerry Brotton