Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
Chute’s biography is popular rather than scholarly, as the absence of footnotes indicates. Despite Chute’s ten-page bibliography and occasional citation from an Elizabethan or Jacobean document, she made no effort to uncover new information; virtually all of her research was conducted at the New York Public Library. Nevertheless, young adults who want to understand Shakespeare in the context of his time will find Chute’s book a sensible and accessible introduction to the subject.
Unlike so many popular biographies of Shakespeare, Chute’s eschews myth. She relegates the sonnets and early legends to appendices, indicating her determination to write an objective account shorn of the stories that arose after Shakespeare’s death. Yet the occasional conjecture still surfaces. Chute assumes that Shakespeare learned little besides Ovid at Stratford Grammar School, thus ignoring the training in rhetoric and the broad introduction to the classics that his education provided. She assumes that by 1585 Shakespeare and his wife had become estranged, though there is no evidence that the two did not live together in London and Shakespeare repeatedly visited Stratford. The author further guesses that Anne had been reared as a Puritan and so detested plays and playwrights. Nevertheless, Chute avoids wild surmises.
Although Chute discounts such stories as the young Shakespeare being driven from Stratford by Sir Thomas Lucy because of the youth’s poaching of Lucy’s deer, her book is not devoid of those anecdotes that delight readers of all ages. Through these vignettes, not only Shakespeare but also many of his contemporaries come to life. One finds the details of the death of Robert Greene, who attacked Shakespeare as “an upstart crow,” and of the murder of Christopher Marlowe. Chute questions but recounts the slightly ribald tale of Shakespeare displacing Richard Burbage in the bed of an admiring playgoer.
Adolescents will be drawn to Chute’s biography because of her gift for telling a story and because her Shakespeare is not a figure of romance. Chute may tilt too far in the other direction, however, denying him friendship with the earl of Southampton and intimating that the learned scored him. For Chute, Shakespeare is a man who worked diligently at his craft, saved his money, and invested it wisely. The businessperson and the actor loom larger here than the writer. Significantly, the one step that Chute omits in her account of the progress of Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s actual creation of his tragedy. Yet even here, Shakespeare of London usefully reminds the reader that the playwright earned little money by his pen; his acting led to his prosperity. Chute dispels the notion that players were sturdy rogues and vagabonds; she demonstrates that most led sober, middle-class lives.
This account treats players and playgoers sympathetically. For Shakespeare to produce great comedies, histories, and tragedies, he needed those who could give the texts life on the stage and audiences that could appreciate his achievement. Chute does well to emphasize the theatrical and cultural background that made possible works such as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (16001601) and The Tempest (1611).
The book is better on such historical matters than for its literary criticism. Chute comments incisively on King Lear (16051606): “The action of the characters is as senseless as life itself.” She nicely characterizes Macbeth (1606) as “a tragedy that is the color of blood and moves as steadily as the coming of darkness.” Elsewhere, however, her judgment is questionable. She maintains that Hamlet’s advice to the players reveals a literary snob who would not have enjoyed the piece in which he is the title character, and she regards a number of Shakespeare’s plays, including All’s Well That Ends Well (16021603) and Measure for Measure (1604), as unplayable or unsuccessful. Such assessments about individual plays are minor irritants, since the book does not pretend to interpretation. They become more troubling when they lead to such claims as “Shakespeare was never very interested in innovation” or “he did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period.” Chute’s emphasis on the “gentle Shakespeare,” as even his contemporaries called him, occasionally distorts her reading of the literary record.
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