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Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
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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


EDITED TO ADD...

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 |
I love Shakespeare and thought I would love this. I'm afraid that it got on my nerves. I know all writers inject themselves into their works, but as a biography, I thought Mr. Ackroyd would be better at not imposing and arguing his theories about Shakespeare's life and thoughts and feelings and stick to either facts or probabilities. We don't have a lot of facts about Shakespeare and I understand a certain amount of discussing probabilities or possibilities is required. But Mr. Ackroyd would admit that he was making a supposition or guess about where Shakespeare was or what he was doing but from then on repeat it as fact, and indulge in all sorts imaginings as to what happened. Mr. Ackroyd makes conclusive statements about what Shakespeare felt or thought or believed that seem, to me, to be stretching. It wasn't what I was looking for or interested in.

He states as fact that certain plays were written at certain times when that's a matter of scholarly opinion and debate. He states as fact that Shakespeare played certain specific roles in his plays and even suggests that Shakespeare's acting was somehow transformative and got huge ovations and things - based on everything I've read about Shakespeare, while it is probable that Shakespeare did play SOME roles in his plays, at present, NO ONE knows which ones and the likelihood of which ones is, again, still a matter of scholarly opinion and debate. Mr. Ackroyd is not clear in providing his sources for why he thinks Shakespeare acted in certain roles on certain dates and why those performances were so well received, and more importantly, he is not clear that these are based on someone else's supposition. No documents. No facts.

Also, Mr. Ackroyd makes bizarre statements like how Shakespeare may have been fat in later years. I mean, yes, he could have been. He also could have been thin. I felt like a child could have come up with a lot of these statements: Shakespeare could have eaten lobster at one point. Or he could not have! Shakespeare could have gone fishing. Just a guess, but isn't nice to think of?

It just felt pointless.

Some information about what schools in Shakespeare's childhood were like was interesting to learn and information about London and what it was like to live in it at the time was also very interesting, but I felt like the facts of William Shakespeare were drowned out by a mess of stupid theories and speculations. ( )
  Eregriel | Sep 11, 2013 |
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 |
Here we have Shakespeare nearly 450 years old. Here we have an exhaustive biography so well researched we not only gain a better sense of who Shakespeare was but also what made him what he was. This is no small feat. Akroyd is able to take every facet of his subject expose it to the various conjectures and apply his knowledge and keen insight so that it shines anew in perfect radiance. As Shakespeare's biographer, he lays out the roads before us and nudges us in the direction that makes the most sense.

He does this by placing us in Shakespeare's surroundings of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. We smell the horse manure from the streets of Shakespeare's life and witness the people walking through it.

He does this by showing us how the events in Shakespeare's time influenced his writing: the lean to the old religion verse Protestant reform, the forge of the Elizabethan Theater Age with all the competing playhouses and players, the rise and fall of John Shakespeare, the death of Hamnet.

Shakespeare was multi-faceted. He was a practical and pragmatic man who wrote in a spirit of rapid fluidity garnering remarkable insight into the human soul. A rustic turned playwright. Someone as familiar with the breeze of cows as the fury of sexual jealousy. ( )
2 vote benbulben | Oct 3, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:29 -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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