Shakespeare: The Biography
Chatto and Windus, 25
THE cultural juggernaut that goes by the name of William Shakespeare seems to be hurtling forward with unstoppable momentum. The world's favourite playwright was 441 years old last April, but he has never looked more lively, on stage and page.
The reconstituted Globe theatre is doing a roaring trade in London, and for 2006 the RSC is planning an ambitious 12-month festival of the complete works, with all 37 of Shakespeare's plays to be produced in Stratford-upon-Avon by an international coalition of theatre companies.
Meanwhile, academic heavyweights like Stephen Greenblatt and Frank Kermode continue to publish biographies and critical studies. Even Bill Bryson has a Shakespeare book in the pipeline. In spite of the thousands of tribute works that already exist, authors are as keen as ever to write themselves into his reflected glory.
In such a crowded field, most Shakespeare biographies have some angle from which to approach the monument, some organising theme to help them make sense of the shadowy mass of data and speculation about him.
Katherine Duncan-Jones's Ungentle Shakespeare picked out "scenes from his life" to present a refreshing, highly convincing picture of Shakespeare as a hard-nosed survivor in a dangerous world. Greenblatt's Will In The World set aside academic restraint and offered an almost novelistic account of "Will" making his way in Renaissance England. And James Shapiro's recent 1599 focused in fascinating detail on a single year in Shakespeare's life.
Peter Ackroyd, though, uses no such strategies for thinning out the material. He just gulps it all down and asks us to do the same. We start with birth and forge on through to death, 91 chapters later. On the way we take in all the sights, sounds and smells of Elizabethan Stratford and London, from fashions in beards to religious persecution. The title of Shakespeare: The Biography fits the book perfectly - it is as straightforward as it is ambitious.
Still, Ackroyd more than most has earned the right to that magisterial definite article. He has made a career out of digesting great, varied chunks of cultural history, with biographies of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Blake, Dickens, Chaucer and Thomas More, and novels based on the lives of Wilde, Chatterton and Charles and Mary Lamb, among others. His most recent novel, The Lambs of London, was a preliminary foray into Shakespearean territory, dealing with a 19th-century forger who claimed to have discovered a new tragedy by Shakespeare.
We might also see Shakespeare: The Biography as a sort of sequel to London: The Biography, Ackroyd's grand tour of the city through the centuries. It is as though, having anatomised the English metropolis, the next logical step is to chart the capital city of the kingdom of English literature. His Shakespeare is not quite so monumental as his London - a mere 523 pages to the earlier book's 640 - but in a way the project is as huge.
ANY BIOGRAPHY must make sense of a whole culture in order to understand a single life; but in telling the story of this life, Ackroyd invokes not only the national culture of an age, but something still more abstract. Shakespeare, here, is the "greatest exemplar" of "the English imagination", properly belonging in the company of Dickens, Turner and Chaucer, but more quintessential than any of them.
The characteristics of "the English imagination" are those of Shakespeare's drama: sentimental, secular, cynical, dirty-minded, romantic, mistrustful of authority but enamoured of aristocracy, ideology-free, and sympathetic towards failure of any kind. For Ackroyd, Shakespeare defines Englishness.
This means that the details of his life become suffused with significance; each happenstance is a key to understanding the personality of both the man and the nation. Ackroyd makes much of Shakespeare's deep relationship with his environment, his "rootedness within English culture".
In Stratford, Shakespeare grew up in a bourgeois glovemaker's family, attended grammar school and, at the age of 18, hastily married the pregnant Anne Hathaway. It was a small town, close to the rhythms of rural life - Shakespeare was "of the country", and forests, fields and rivers formed the first landscape of his imagination.
But the lure of the city was strong. London in the 1590s was a new kind of metropolis: larger, richer, filled with more danger and opportunity than any city before. Not long after his marriage, Shakespeare left his new family in Stratford and went to seek his fortune. This was an unusual move, but Shakespeare (Ackroyd concludes) was restless and determined, and London "was an explosion of human energy. He had to reach it."
Here, Ackroyd gives rein to the novelist within the biographer, granting himself access to his hero's perceptions: "As Shakespeare approached the city, he saw the pall of smoke. He heard it, a confused roar striated with bells. He smelled it, too. The distinct odour of London penetrated some twenty-five miles on all sides... it smelled terribly of dung and offal and human labour."
Ackroyd powerfully evokes the jostling, youthful, lethal city, and speculates convincingly on the intimate connections between this brave new world and the unprecedented drama that Shakespeare was to create in its crucible.
Elizabethan plays were a business enterprise above all, and it is impossible to separate Shakespeare's work from the context of the London theatres, especially the Globe. Ackroyd calls it "an astounding reality, quite unlike anything ever seen before... In modern terms the sixteenth-century theatre was television and cinema, street festival and circus, all in one."
A paradoxical figure emerges. Shakespeare was a thoroughly practical person, as unsentimental about accumulating money as he was about recycling theatrical plots. He was litigious, speculated cannily on the property market, hoarded grain in times of shortage and may have practised usury. But he was also a dreamer who "preferred romance to reality".
He is elusive and self-contradictory, a pragmatic visionary who reveals no opinions about anything; the author of plays that seem obsessed with hierarchy and apologetic for establishment power, but that are, at the same time, individualistic and egalitarian.
This is a story as old as Shakespeare. But Ackroyd tells it well, with a combination of carefully marshalled evidence and rich imaginative empathy. He regularly crosses the limits of what is knowable, as when he imagines Shakespeare writing Falstaff: "He did not know where the words came from; he just knew that they came." But there is a surefooted sense of where deduction becomes speculation; the fanciful moments are amply offset by mastery of the available data.
He is an enthusiast rather than an expert, and as such he makes an eager, engaging guide, tirelessly scattering nuggets of fact and diving with gusto into Shakespeare's writing at every opportunity. In the end, it is because of his keen critical feeling for the plays themselves that Ackroyd's portrait of the man convinces.
Shakespeare's will bequeaths his "second-best bed" to his wife. Is this a final, bitter snub at the end of an unhappy marriage? Or could it be that the second-best bed is the one the Shakespeares had always shared (the best one being reserved for visitors), and that the legacy is therefore a tender one? Ackroyd notes both interpretations, and then votes for the more generous. But he knows it is the ambiguity that is Shakespearean.