A lot of good Will
Peter Ackroyd tells us that he came to write this biography 'as a Shakespeare enthusiast rather than expert', and the enthusiasm is clear from the enormous amount of reading that he undertook in preparing it, as well as in his evident appreciation of the plays and poems.
He tackles all the significant issues, relating them whenever he can to Shakespeare's artistic life. Was his father a covert Catholic? Ackroyd tends to thinks he was and that this explains the financial difficulties he experienced during his son's early manhood. And perhaps, Ackroyd suggests, this is also why 'the plays of Shakespeare are filled with authoritative males', such as Richard II, Brutus and Antony, 'who have failed'.
|Shakespeare: The Biography
Is Shakespeare the 'William Shakeshafte' named in a Catholic will of 1581? Although the will mentions 'players' along with 'instruments and play clothes', it does not necessarily imply that Shakeshafte was a player. Even if he is to be identified with the Warwickshire lad, the will does not provide 'a description of the young Shakespeare as an actor in a Catholic household where he may have been introduced as a schoolmaster'. But Ackroyd leans to the belief that he was, and sees this as an explanation of how he entered the theatrical world, without quite explaining the hiatus in which he returned to Stratford by the time he was 18 to impregnate Anne Hathaway and start a family.
This raises the question of Shakespeare's religious beliefs. Ackroyd says the 'safest and most likely conclusion' is that 'Shakespeare professed no particular faith'. And he sees this reflected in the plays. In the tragedies, 'the religious imperatives of piety and consolation are withheld; these are worlds with no god'. That may be true of King Lear, but what about Hamlet, where Horatio asks that 'flights of angels' shall sing the hero to his rest?
How about his sex life? Well, 'there is a tendency to associate Shakespeare with lustfulness', and it is clear from his plays 'that he was preoccupied with sexuality in all of its forms'. His writing 'is quick with sexual meanings', he 'had an understanding of devoted male friendships' and actors 'are often possessed by an ambiguous sexuality', but Ackroyd is guarded about applying evidence derived from the writings to Shakespeare's personal conduct.
The opening chapters naturally concentrate on Stratford, which, as Ackroyd says, was to remain 'the centre of his being'. There is a touch of dutifulness about the style here, with flat phrases such as 'It is inevitably the case', 'It is important to note'. It's all earnest. The first (and, by my reckoning, the only) witticism doesn't come until page 457.
Ackroyd gets out of his depth in his treatment of Shakespeare's early theatre career. He has swallowed too credulously the discredited theories of scholars such as Eric Sams about certain early plays - the idea, for instance, that The Troublesome Reign of King John and The Taming of the Shrew are 'without doubt' Shakespeare's early versions of plays that he later reworked, and that he is quoting chunks of Marlowe in what are more probably reconstructed texts patched together by reporters. Although I welcome Ackroyd's emphasis on the fluidity of Elizabethan acting texts, and on Shakespeare as a reviser of his own work, I see no reason to believe that The Comedy of Errors is a revised text, or that in Hamlet 'To be or not to be' is an interpolation.
This is part of an excessive tendency to accept speculation as fact. The statement on the first page that a Stratford resident, William Smith, was Shakespeare's godfather rests on no more evidence than their sharing of one of the commonest of all Elizabethan given names. There is no hard evidence that Shakespeare played most of the roles in his own plays.
And (like all of us), Ackroyd makes occasional slips. Among them are a statement that the current Theatre Royal Drury Lane 'has a maximum capacity of less than 900' (actually 2,205), that printer John Rastell, who died in 1536, nearly 20 years before Shakespeare was born, was the owner in Shakespeare's time of the Mermaid tavern, and that Julius Caesar (rather than Titus Andronicus) is 'Shakespeare's first Roman play'.
Ackroyd's enthusiasms are most apparent in the sub-sections about individual plays, which are well tied in with the overall narrative, relating the works to the career and to the growth of Shakespeare's reputation. He writes in generalised terms, with little attempt at close analysis and with surprisingly little quotation. I'm sorry he finds All's Well That Ends Well 'barren and boring'; in its concern with the relationship between innate and acquired virtue, between human action and superhuman will, it seems to me to be unusually revealing of Shakespeare's preoccupations, and so of great interest to a biographer.
Ackroyd's views can be bleak. 'To watch King Lear is to approach the recognition that there is indeed no meaning in life, and that there are limits to human understanding.' Maybe, but if the second part of this sentence is true, how can we be sure of the first? Writing on Shakespeare's last days, he surveys the gossip and speculation about his last illness while wisely refusing to commit himself to any of it. Nor does he have specific views about Shakespeare's bequest to his widow of the second-best bed.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005