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Shakespeare: The Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Shakespeare: The Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Shakespeare: The Biography, written by Peter Ackroyd, is a long (572 pages), minutely detailed account of the life and times and of the most famous dramatist/poet who ever lived. Many of the details of Shakespeare’s life are known—where he lived, mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters—but much about Shakespeare, especially about his writing, is speculative and endlessly debated by scholars and historians. As Peter Ackroyd says, “Wherever we look in Shakespeare’s work, we see the impossibility of assigning purpose or unassailable meaning.”

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the small (2000 people) English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, a hundred miles from London. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover (maker of gloves), landowner, and local official. The family, if not exactly wealthy, was affluent and had pretensions of nobility. His mother, Mary Shakespeare, was a remote member of the noble Arden family. The Shakespeares were adherents to the “old” faith (Catholic), while the “approved” and accepted religion was the Anglican (Church of England) faith. The Queen, Elizabeth I, had originally taken a middle road on religion, but when her crown was threatened by the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and her followers, she adopted a harsh tone against “recusants,” those who still practiced the old religion.

Shakespeare was educated in the grammar school near his home and never attended college or university. When he was eighteen, he married a woman several years older than he was named Anne Hathaway. She was carrying his child when they were married and she soon gave birth to a daughter, Susannah Shakespeare. Several years later, the couple had twins: a son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith. (Hamnet would die at age eleven.) Leaving his wife and three small children behind in his hometown, Shakespeare decamped to London where he could pursue a theatrical career (writing plays and acting on the stage).

The London of Shakespeare’s time was a busy, exciting, place—noisy, crowded, dirty and dangerous. The plague made periodic visitations upon the populace, usually during the summer months, killing thousands of people at a time. (Theatres and public gathering places were routinely shut down during plague epidemics.) Shakespeare thrived in London and soon made a name for himself in the theatre. He acted in many of the plays he wrote and also acted in plays written by other people. He and his acting troupe performed for the sovereign at court, first Queen Elizabeth I and then her successor, King James I. Unlike many great writers, Shakespeare enjoyed tremendous success and renown in his life.

There is much in this book about Shakespeare’s brilliance and his “assimilative” mind. He wasn’t as well educated or as cultured as some of his contemporaries. To write his plays, especially the histories, he always started out with some source material, making it uniquely his own. He also “borrowed” heavily from other writers, which led to jealousy and personal attacks, especially after his plays became so successful. There were other celebrated playwrights during his time, but none so inventive and with so agile a mind and facile a talent. He died on his fifty-third birthday (April 23, 1616) in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. The cause of death is not known today, but there is speculation that he died of typhoid fever. He was buried underneath the floor in the chancel of the old church near where he grew up.

Shakespeare: The Biography is everything you ever wanted to know about Shakespeare and then some. He had many friends, colleagues, relatives, business acquaintances, and rivals, and we meet them all here. There are so many names in this book that’s it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight, but it’s a wonderful, mostly fascinating biography of a great man and an evocation of a time long past.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp