William Shakespeare by A. L. Rowse Critical Context - Essay

A. L. Rowse

Critical Context

In his preface, Rowse justifies his “adding to the number” of books on Shakespeare by referring to his own experience as a social historian, particularly of the Elizabethan age; he argues the value of a new approach to Shakespeare’s life and work—the “historical method”—and writes that he has “spent his lifetime studying the period and social life of Shakespeare’s time.” Rowse’s approach has brought life to a distant age and to a famous writer.

Although written primarily for a general adult audience, Rowse’s book, containing the drama of events such as the rise and fall of Essex, intertwined with the fortunes of Southampton, should be interesting to a high-school student. Events such as the trial of Dr. Lopez for poisoning the queen, the capture of Cádiz, the Danvers’ murder case, Essex’s expedition to Ireland and his later execution, Southampton’s resistance to pressures from his mother and Lord Cecil to marry him to Elizabeth Vere, and his mother’s frantic but successful efforts to save her son from execution would fascinate the young adult reader.

Also of interest, and reflected in Rowse’s biography, are Shakespeare’s concern with issues that matter to young people: the tragedy of war, the failure of Utopianism, and the flaws in idealism. Especially appealing should be the sensitivity to the conflicting emotions of youth, as reflected in many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet, the tensions in parent-child relationships, and the torment of guilt. Rowse’s book is a study by a recognized historian; it is a personal and imaginative interpretation of a gifted writer that is painstakingly set within his geographical, historical, and social context.