Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography does not warrant the definite article of the subtitle implying what the dust jacket states, that this is the definitive biography of the playwright. That designation belongs to Park Honan’s more modestly titled work, Shakespeare: A Life (1998). The strength of Ackroyd’s book lies in placing William Shakespeare within the context of his world; it is flawed, however, by questionable statements of fact and interpretation that can mislead the general reader for whom the work is intended.
Ackroyd is best when he shows how the world Shakespeare made in his plays reflects the world that he found. In King John (pr. c. 1596-1597) a smith listens to the gossip of a tailor. Ackroyd points out that when Shakespeare was growing up in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, his next-door neighbor was a tailor, and next to the tailor lived Richard Hornby, a smith. Henry IV, Part II (pr. 1598) includes the character William Visor of Woncote, who probably takes his name from the real wool-dealer George Vizer of Woodmacote (pronounced Woncote), with whom Shakespeare’s father very likely dealt, as John Shakespeare supplemented his income by trading in wool illegally. Shakespeare calls Visor an “arrant knave,” perhaps suggesting that relations between John Shakespeare and George Vizer were not always amicable. Ackroyd notes that a William Fluellen lived in Stratford; the name resurfaces in Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599). One of Falstaff’s confederates is Bardolph, whose name probably derives from another Stratford resident, George Bardolph.
Shakespeare’s country origins are reflected in his language as well. Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare (2003) makes this point, too. Although only a few pages of Shakespearean manuscript survive, word forms in the printed early quartos and even the First Folio may reflect the author’s spellings, which in turn suggest a Warwickshire accent. Shakespeare’s vocabulary similarly derives from the English Midlands, as when in Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607) he calls gadflies “the breeze.” In Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604) Cassio tells Montano, “Let me go, sir, or I’ll knock you o’er the mazzard,” using the Warwickshire word for head.
Shakespeare’s world continued to intrude upon his imagination when he came to London. In Twelfth Night (pr. c. 1600-1602) Antonio recommends that Sebastian lodge at the Elephant, an inn located in “the south suburbs” of the capital of Illyria, where that play is set. The Elephant was an actual inn that stood near the Globe Theatre in Southwark, London. Shakespeare was writing Henry IV, Part II in 1597 at the same time that he was renovating his newly acquired house in Stratford, New Place. This play contains references to construction. Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608) opens with a food riot, an event that Shakespeare did not find in his source, Plutarch. However, he could have seen such rioting outside his front door in Stratford at the time he was composing this tragedy.
Shakespeare’s London contemporaries found their way into his plays just as did the residents of his Stratford youth. It is probably no accident that the French herald in Henry V is named Mountjoy. By 1601 Shakespeare was living in the house owned by the Huguenot wig-maker Christopher Mountjoy, who may have helped him with the French scenes in that play. Incidentally, Ackroyd’s biography highlights what a small world London was in 1600, despite its population of some two hundred thousand. At the request of Mountjoy’s wife, Shakespeare encouraged one of Mountjoy’s apprentices, Stephen Belott, to marry her daughter, Mary Mountjoy. After the wedding, Stephen and Mary became tenants of George Wilkins, who may have collaborated with Shakespeare in the writing of Pericles, Prince of Tyre (pr. c. 1607-1608). Wilkins certainly wrote a novel that may be the source of the play, unless it was based on Shakespeare’s romance. The publisher of the first quarto of Pericles was Henry Gosson, who stood surety for Wilkins when he was accused of...
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