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A fine account of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare: The Biography. Peter Ackroyd. Chatto & Windus. [pounds sterling]25.00. xiii + 546 pages. ISBN 1-85619-726-3.

This biography has many excellences. Mr Ackroyd is strong on London, as we would expect, and is intimately familiar with the textures of Elizabethan life--its lack of privacy, the minutiae of domestic transactions, the high infant mortality. When Shakespeare moved from Shoreditch it was to a better residential area, Bishopsgate. The author is also acutely aware of the Catholic connection, and never fails to point out those major figures whom Shakespeare encounters who are also Catholics. That is the undersong of the biography: Shakespeare made his way by assuring patrons of his Catholic sympathies. He was 'safe'. In a life whose charted progress was ever upwards, Shakespeare never abandoned that support system. (See also Contemporary Review, Summer 2006.)

On the plays, and especially Shakespeare's system of composition, Mr Ackroyd is enlightening. For him, Shakespeare is a company man, immersed in the needs and feedback of the Chamberlain's/King's Men. Always his plays are 'work in progress', and revision is never-ending. The texts are 'fluid and incomplete'. It follows that the definitive text is a mirage of editors. He is perhaps too ready to see early texts (even if not Shakespeare's) as drafts for the later work. I cannot see The Troublesome Raigne of King John as Shakespeare's. It is a different sensibility. We should however remember that Hamlet is not a solid-state work. There are no fewer than five, perhaps six Hamlet-plays from the era. Only two of them, the second quarto and folio, are echt Shakespeare. So The Taming of a Shrew is seen as a 'drawing', The Taming of the Shrew is the 'oil-painting'. These images are central to Peter Ackroyd's view of Shakespeare's art.

The author takes for granted that easy word, 'collaboration'. That implies equality, Gilbert and Sullivan-style. When Shakespeare took over, in Pericles, a couple of acts from George Wilkins, I don't believe that Shakespeare wanted to get too close to that mauvais sujet. He simply acted as play doctor. The same, I'd say, is true of George Peele's start on Titus Andronicus. But Mr Ackroyd is right that Shakespeare, as a working playwright, took the work as it came and was perfectly happy to contribute to mixed enterprises. It always paid.

There are however some unsound assertions. 'He's fat and scant of breath' could as well refer to Laertes as Hamlet--better, since Hamlet is in training and does actually win. Peter Ackroyd's support of a Fool/Cordelia double in King Lear is generally rejected by scholars. They are simply not on stage at the same time, which in itself proves nothing and professional amour propre would surely have prevented the 'allowed fool', Robert Armin, from taking over a boy's part. The sonnets are seen here as a 'performance', owing nothing to the real experiences of Shakespeare's life, but the 'dyer's hand' sonnet (111) can only be a personal confession. There is genuine autobiography in the sonnets--witness the tight mini-narrative of 128/129/130--mixed with the generic attitudinizing. Wolsey's farewell in Henry VIII is now judged to be Fletcher's, not Shakespeare's. The recent work of Brian Vickers and others is decisive. The Bad Quarto of Hamlet really cannot be accepted as an early Shakespeare draft. The objections to the text are not based on 'purist' resistance to inferior work, as Mr Ackroyd thinks, but the startlingly accurate state of four minor parts (Marcellus and others). The hired man, put out of work, must have cobbled up a short memorial text for touring in the provinces and recalled his own parts perfectly.

Still, this is a fine account of Shakespeare. It is full of insights, such as that on Shakespeare's images: 'They convey a unity of feeling rather than one of meaning, rather in the way that film-music works in the cinema'. Peter Ackroyd's sympathy with his subject, the interplay between plays and life, often blurs the line between fact and assumption. That is a feature of current biography, and it's the price to be paid. It leaves us with a recognizable, not wholly appealing figure. Throughout, we see a hard, practical, unsentimental man who, without being a careerist, constructed an exemplary career. It was a triumph of focused meritocracy. His gifts as poet, playwright, actor and company man took him to the favour of royalty. His patrons gave him money; he bought land, he delayed paying local tax demands, he hoarded grain, he took people to court for nonpayment of loans. He sought, and paid for, the status of gentleman. In the end, Shakespeare was a Midlands businessman.

Ralph Berry spent most of his teaching career in Canada but has also taught in New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Kuwait and Malaya. His many publications include The Art of John Webster (Clarendon Press) and The Shakespearean Metaphor (Macmillan). His latest book is Tragic Instance: the Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies (University of Delaware).
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Title Annotation:Shakespeare: The Biography
Author:Berry, Ralph
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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