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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1720

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...

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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 beating a pregnant prostitute.

Other of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also served as models for characters in his work. Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595) seems replete with topical allusions. Armado in that play may be based on the poet Gabriel Harvey, Moth on the writer Thomas Nashe, and Holofernes on the lexicographer and translator John Florio. Ackroyd notes that the steward in Twelfth Night, Malvolio, may satirize the comptroller of the royal household, Sir William Knollys. Polonius in Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601) may mock William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer. Cecil opposed the earls of Essex and Southampton; the latter is the most popular candidate for the fair youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and in the chorus preceding act 5 of Henry V, Shakespeare praises Essex. Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World (2004) suggests that the dramatist Robert Greene may have served as a model for Falstaff.

Ackroyd also reminds readers how much Shakespeare was a man of the theater. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, competed with the Lord Admiral’s Men, whose theater, the Rose, stood near the Globe in Southwark. When the Lord Chamberlain’s Men staged Hamlet, the Lord Admiral’s Men revived Thomas Kyd’s play about revenge, The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1588). After the Lord Admiral’s Men had produced popular pastorals, Shakespeare replied with As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600). In 1599, Philip Henslowe, manager of the Lord Admiral’s Men, paid Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle for a play titled “Troyeles & creasse daye”; a few years later Shakespeare’s company staged Troilus and Cressida (pr. c. 1601-1602). Macbeth (pr. 1606) capitalized on the recent Gunpowder Plot of 1605; The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597) followed hard upon the execution of Elizabeth’s Jewish physician Roderigo Lopez in 1594.

Further, as Ackroyd notes, Shakespeare was writing for a particular company, so he tailored roles to his actors. In Henry VI, Part II the rebel Jack Cade performs a morris dance because Will Kempe, who played that role, was famous for his dancing skills. At the end of Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare promises that the popular Falstaff will reappear in Henry V. Will Kempe, who was the first Falstaff, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men before Henry V was staged, so Falstaff is not a character in that work after all.

Kempe’s successor in comic roles was Robert Armin, whose approach to acting was more subtle and reflective than Kempe’s. Hence, one sees a change in the nature of the clown in Shakespeare’s later plays, as reflected in Touchstone (As You Like It) and King Lear’s Fool when compared to the earlier Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pr. c. 1595-1596) and Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing, pr. c. 1598-1599). Armin had a good voice, which Shakespeare uses to advantage in Twelfth Night, for example, where Feste is given four songs.

In a larger sense, too, Shakespeare’s world influenced his work. Ackroyd observes that culture in the sixteenth century was still oral in nature, in which the greatest writers turned to the theater. There was no popular market yet for print. Even so great a poet as Edmund Spenser had to rely on patronage to survive. Hence, the best writers turned to that oral medium, the stage. When the culture of print emerged in the eighteenth century, the outstanding writers turned to prose fiction. Shakespeare’s world was also cruel. The theater of cruelty that is Titus Andronicus (pr. 1594) reflects reality. Titus has his hand cut off on stage. John Stubbs, in fact, had his right hand cut off for writing against Queen Elizabeth’s proposed marriage to Francis, Duke of Alençon, brother of King Henry III of France, in 1579. Henry VIII (pr. 1613) shows the origins of England’s break with Rome, and the play was staged in the very room where Katherine of Aragon had been tried.

Though good at presenting the historical and theatrical milieu in which Shakespeare wrote, Ackroyd says little about the works themselves. While he is writing a biography rather than a critical analysis, such taciturnity, especially from one who is himself a writer, disappoints. What he does say about the plays sometimes is misleading. Thus, he comments that the last speech is given to the highest ranking character on stage. This is not the case in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (pr. c. 1594-1595), Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello. The quarto and Folio versions of King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606) assign the last speech to different speakers (Albany in the quarto, Edgar in the Folio), so who outranks whom? Ackroyd writes that in his plays Shakespeare takes a lenient attitude toward the breaking of oaths, an attitude that Ackroyd links to Shakespeare’s family’s Catholicism. Not only is this Catholicism not proved, but rarely do the plays condone the breaking of promises or violations of loyalty. Indeed, quite the reverse is true. Ackroyd observes that all scenes between the two sexes in Shakespeare show hostility; again, the facts do not support this contention. Ackroyd claims that Othello is Spanish; the play makes clear that the character comes from Mauritania.

Ackroyd wants Shakespeare to be an early bloomer. The first definite references to Shakespeare in the London theater date from 1592, when the playwright was twenty-eight. That is rather old for a genius to begin his career; Christopher Marlowe died at the age of twenty-nine. Ackroyd therefore dates some plays to the late 1580’s; he even ascribes an early and now lost Hamlet (c. 1587) to Shakespeare, though the most popular candidate for authorship is Thomas Kyd. To bolster his case, Ackroyd repeatedly assumes that ambiguous allusions in this period refer to Shakespeare. In The Teares of the Muses (1591) Edmund Spenser refers to “our pleasant Willy.” Ackroyd wants this Willy to be Shakespeare, even though the line continues, “ah is dead of late.” This desire to make Shakespeare a playwright by the age of twenty-three also compels Ackroyd to regard what are called bad quartos not as memorial reconstructions but rather as early drafts and to assign some questionable works to the young writer. Despite its strengths and its lovely illustrations, this book can mislead general readers, while scholars will find in it nothing new that is good, and nothing good that is new.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35

Booklist 101, no. 21 (July 1, 2005): 1890.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 13 (July 1, 2005): 715.

Library Journal 130, no. 13 (August 15, 2005): 83-84.

New Statesman 134 (September 5, 2005): 36-37.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (October 23, 2005): 8-9.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 27 (July 11, 2005): 75.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 2005, pp. 24-25.

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