Ackroyd (Chaucer, Jan. 2005, etc.) continues his exploration of his native country’s imaginative landscape with a portrait of the life and times of the quintessential English artist.
Given the enormous amount of attention devoted to the life of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) in the four centuries since his death, it’s hard to offer something truly new about either the man or his plays. Ackroyd doesn’t, but his discursive biography capably synthesizes current knowledge with just enough of a point of view to make it interesting. He’s solid on Shakespeare’s origins in a family of recusant Catholics—a fairly new but now generally conceded point—and on the Bard’s rise in dynamic, rapidly changing Elizabethan society: “a young man’s world in which ambition and aspiration might lead anywhere and everywhere.” But the author sometimes gets perilously near radical oversimplification when he suggests that the writer merely threw hordes of great characters onto the stage in plots whose plundered sources he barely bothered to alter. The extensive historical background ranges from marvelously atmospheric material on Elizabethan theater, which illuminates the network of rivalries and camaraderie within which Shakespeare operated, to tedious references to academic disagreements about which the general reader will care naught. We get a wonderful sense of Shakespeare’s personality: educated but not particularly intellectual, ambitious, shrewd about money, eager to reassert his family’s genteel origins, something of a philanderer, suspicious of all dogma. Ackroyd offers less compelling material, stressing Shakespeare’s fluency and fertility, his ability to cannibalize others’ work and shape it to his own ends, without being very specific as to what exactly those ends were.
Newcomers to Shakespearean studies will find this a good place to start. Those more familiar with the field will find that it palls in comparison to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004).