In his preface, Rowse asserts that “strict historical method” is an “indispensable foundation for the structure of any biography of Shakespeare.” By “close study of what was happening at the time, year by year,” Rowse maintains, he found an unhoped-for “enrichment of the contemporary content and experience” that went into several plays. Nothing seems to have escaped Rowse’s attention: social customs, legal documents, contemporary gossip, and even the most minute, as well as major, political events. These, coupled with Rowse’s close reading of the texts of the plays and poems, have produced a monumental work.
Yet his book is flawed by some assumptions that are not necessarily warranted by the evidence. For example, he is persuaded that he has finally determined the definitive dating for the plays, in one case moving Love’s Labour’s Lost and linking it to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His insistence that the sonnets were autobiographical records of a nonphysical love affair with Southampton is debatable, as is his identi-fication of the occasion for A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the wedding of Southampton’s mother.
Despite these flaws, there is no question that Rowse’s study is highly sensitive to the spirit of the times and is a respectably imaginative and provocative account of a real, living Shakespeare in a real, living Stratford and London.
Among the concomitant contributions of Rowse are his insight into the process by which Shakespeare used his sources. As he points...
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