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Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

Shakespeare: The Biography (2005)

by Peter Ackroyd

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At the halfway mark, I'm still completely ambivalent. I cringe every time he claims to know what Shakespeare was thinking or intending, I squint sidelong every time he categorically refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a homoerotic/queer subtext in the biography -- even while discussing Marlowe and Edward II!!, and I boggle every time the chronology established at the opening is turned on its head, so that previously discussed factors are dismissed in order to discuss these new ones, as if multiple influences are unable to coexist.

And yet, Ackroyd gives great insight into the setting and *context* of the plays and poems, as well as to the historical bits and bobs that remain.

I would be a kinder audience if there were a bit less stating querulous assertions as if they're commonly accepted facts. As it is, I feel like scrawling YMMV across every single one of them.

I will say that if nothing else, this book has made me long for a freaking TIMELINE of when which players were where. /confusion


Okay, I've finished it, and my fundamental problem remains the structure of the book. Ackroyd groups his chapters according to WS's present professional affiliation -- whether by company or by theatre or by place (eg. early and late life in Stratford) -- instead of by chronology, so what you get is a confusing, redundant, contradictory mess of different takes on the same time period as seen in different venues. Worse, each chapter propagates new theories and hypothetical relationships on top of the ones already given. It is a mess.

GLBT_interest tag: Ackroyd finally got to the queer content (and Kit Marlowe) about 3/4 of the way through, but his entire tone of address is as if he's unwilling holding a pair of tongs bearing a smoking bag of dog turds as far away from himself as humanly possible. He then counters any possible affiliation WS could have had with such "pederasts" by proclaiming WS's sexual success with the ladies. Worse, if you ask me, is he presents a bitter, lifelong rivalry on WS's part against Kit Marlowe, without giving ANY evidence of Marlowe and Shakespeare being anything more than competing writers in the same business, at times working in the same company. If there's historical enmity between them, he damn well didn't quote evidence of it. Instead, he's clearly projecting his own homophobia onto WS in order to sneer at Marlowe. Hello, shoddy scholarship. (Of course, this is a mass market popular bio, not a peer-reviewed scholarly article. But I am annoyed.)

In sum: the basic facts presented are fabulous...if you can weed them out of all the unfounded conjecture. The bibliography looks worth reading. ( )
  sageness | Feb 7, 2014 |
My heart always sings when I pick up a Peter Ackroyd biography. I expect that I shall read an interesting account of the person, but one that does not push any particular bias. I have yet to be disappointed and, certainly, this biography of William Shakespeare never looked likely to buck the trend. Mr Ackroyd respects Shakespeare's position at the pinnacle of British writers without glossing over the deficiencies that any human must possess.

The information concerning the life of Shakespeare is not sufficient to produce a definite story from the cradle to the grave so, Peter Ackroyd gives us what definite knowledge exists and adds the gossip and rumour that surrounds the man. What I particularly like, is that the fact and surmise are clearly separated. He sets out the basis for any unsubstantiated details, gives any supporting evidence and leaves the reader to decide how much credence to give to it.

When one is writing about someone who lived in a very different age to our own, it is important that the historical background is set. This book does this in an admirable fashion; the reader is not lectured, but the detail is all there. One other point which is vital when discussing an earlier age, is to see it through the eyes of the moral standards of the time. Ackroyd, by standing aloft from his subject, reports, without any judgement.

The greatest compliment that one can give to any biography is that it sends the reader scurrying to re-read the poems and re-watch the plays of William Shakespeare. I recently read a fictional biography of the Bard and, at the end, felt dis-satisfied and not drawn to re-engage with Mr Shakespeare's work: with this book, I was re-watching the plays before completing the book. Not only does this work bring the man to life, it adds a new facet to the plays and sonnets.

I would imagine that this biography has enough detail to be worth the time for a Shakespeare expert to read,: without question,it is written in such a way that someone, such as myself, with only the most basic schoolboy awareness of the man and his works can read, enjoy and learn. Thank you, Mr. Ackroyd, for bringing William Shakespeare to life for one ignorant reader. ( )
  the.ken.petersen | Jul 30, 2012 |
Written less as a dry scholarly work (which have their place) but more like a story, this biography of a most elusive man is well worth reading. William Shakespeare is elusive in the sense that so little detail is known of his life biographers have been reduced to sifting through thousands of mundane sources (with nearly as many spelling variations for this name) to piece together a life history. The author here sometimes indulges in reading more into the plays than the playwright possibly meant, but not a lot and it's not like we know any better. A nice touch were the quoted lines at the head of each chapter, though I would have loved to have known which plays they are from exactly. ( )
  amarie | Mar 19, 2011 |
Peter Ackroyd is the biographer of London(!?) as well as of Shakespeare and he does give a very good sense of place. It is an interesting read and very professionally done but somehow you are left not feeling totally convinced. Anyway an enjoyable and accessible introduction to Shakespeare the man. ( )
  lunarcheck | Sep 22, 2009 |
Ackroyd is almost lawyer-like in his reasoning that supports his assumptions about the plays and the life. It will inform my understanding of the Bard from now on. A key point for the author is the Bard's Catholicism, which had an effect on all his writing. Also, Ackroyd skillfully debunks the Oxfordians and others. I like how he explains to readers that it's OK to recognize and appreciate Shakespeare's Genius with a capital G. He was a freak - everything in his life contributed to who he became, but it was that mysterious spark we all wish we had that led to his body of work. He was who he was and who he was was better than anybody else ever. Get over it, Justice John Paul Stevens. ( )
2 vote scootm | Aug 24, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
Most biographies, John Updike has observed, “are really just novels with indexes.” That seems especially true with lives of Shakespeare. Peter Ackroyd’s rather arrogantly subtitled Shakespeare: The Biography, although its flights of fancy are far less extreme than Asquith’s, also trespasses upon the terrain of fiction. So, “we may imagine [Shakespeare] to have been a singularly competitive small boy” and “no doubt easily bored.” As a man, he was apparently “given to lustfulness but fastidious in other particulars,” something which, we are told, “by a curious chance consorts well with the imagery of the plays where there are plentiful references to bawdiness, but where there is also evidence of a general sensitivity to unpleasant sights or smells.” And so on, ad infinitum.
added by amarie | editNew York Times, Anne Barton (May 11, 2006)
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William Shakespeare is popularly supposed to have been born on 23 April 1564, or St George's Day.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 140007598X, Paperback)

Drawing on an exceptional combination of skills as literary biographer, novelist, and chronicler of London history, Peter Ackroyd surely re-creates the world that shaped Shakespeare--and brings the playwright himself into unusually vivid focus. With characteristic narrative panache, Ackroyd immerses us in sixteenth-century Stratford and the rural landscape–the industry, the animals, even the flowers–that would appear in Shakespeare’s plays. He takes us through Shakespeare’s London neighborhood and the fertile, competitive theater world where he worked as actor and writer. He shows us Shakespeare as a businessman, and as a constant reviser of his writing. In joining these intimate details with profound intuitions about the playwright and his work, Ackroyd has produced an altogether engaging masterpiece.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:50 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Sheds new light on the life of the great Elizabethan playwright and poet, reassessing Shakespeare's work within the context of sixteenth-century London and Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as his lasting legacy for world literature.

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