Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography

The end of the school year always brings with it the promise of catching up on some "fun" reading over the summer, and here's a book that's been sitting on my home stack of Books-To-Read since February.

My first encounter with Peter Ackroyd's work was a few years ago, when I began reading his biography of Charles Dickens piecemeal to supplement my research for the Dickens seminars. His prose is beautiful and engaging, and writes biography like a novelist (which he is, too). In Shakespeare: The Biography he does an excellent job of capturing not only the Elizabethan zietgeist, but also handles well the facts and fictions surrounding the life of the Bard, from his humble beginnings as a country schoolboy to his astonishing rise to prominance as the leading London playwright of his time. Along the way, Ackroyd peppers his narrative with interesting anecdotes on Will's writing process, his financial affairs, his personal relationships with actors and rival playwrights, and the ways in which his life's details found their way into his dramatic art.

I especially appreciate the way in which Ackroyd handles the more "controversial" aspects of Shakespeare scholarship. When discussing such things as the authorship question, or Shakespeare's religious leanings, or even the question of to whom the sonnets are dedicated -- all hot topics that Bard scholars have debated ad nauseum for years -- Ackroyd merely puts forth the facts surrounding each topic and avoids turning his biography into a platform from which to espouse yet another "theory." If anything, Ackroyd shuns conspiracy theory for the simple contention that Shakespeare was a gifted literary artist who was financially savvy, politically conservative, and merely one of countless playwrights at the time who worked hard to write, stage, and perform their work within the entertainment districts of London in spite of monarchal censorship and constant outbreaks of the plague.

This was interesting and accessible! I highly recommend it!