Looking for Shakespeare

Shakespeare: the Biography, Chapters 1-6

Will in the World, Chapter 1

This year, I plan to read at least three notable biographies of Shakespeare: Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd and Shakespeare by Bill Bryson.  I have divided them up into 12 months of reading so that I will have new discoveries to make at each and every stage along the way.

This month’s word is SPECULATIVE, often used both to describe and to deride most Shakespeare biographies.  For what else can a book be but speculative that purports to tell the life of a man we know so little about?  If only the bare “facts” about William Shakespeare were published, they would make for a slim volume indeed.

I have only just begun my journey through these two biographies, so it would not be fair to either author to attempt what might generously be called a book “review.”  I can say they pair well together, since Ackroyd tends to interpolate Shakespeare from the facts and from details in the writing, while Greenblatt sets his imagination free to try and recreate the world Shakespeare might have encountered based upon the cultural context of the historical period.  One gets at the man through the writing; the other the writing through the man.

Ackroyd, for example, has told me much more about Shakespeare’s genealogy, economic background, family life, and social setting.  He has proposed that John Shakespeare, William’s father, was a much better businessman and far more successful than we give him credit for.  He also argues that Mary Arden, William’s mother, was strong and capable, exercising a huge influence on his later tendency to create bold, saucy, assertive and independent women.

I was much moved by Ackroyd’s argument that the proof of Shakespeare’s Stratford origins can be found within the plays, through descriptions of the landscape, the flora and fauna, the forest, the countryside, the birds, the seasonal changes, his knowledge of village habits and customs – and, most notably, certain careers like a glover, that of his father.

Before beginning these biographies, I gave much credence to the suggestion that Shakespeare must have come from the upper class, that he would have needed court access or at least a university education to acquire his knowledge of history, mythology and the workings of the social world.  But now I find myself swayed by the centrality of Shakespeare’s standing, that his middle-class background placed him in the perfect position to learn not only about kings, queens and the upper crust, but about butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.  In the end, it’s Shakespeare’s versatility, his ability to render a prince or a pauper, a witch, a wench, a friar, an ass that sets him apart as the genius we know him to be.  Not just up the ladder, but down to the very bottom.

Greenblatt and Ackroyd both establish that Shakespeare would not have been as limited in Stratford as we commonly think.  The King’s School, which he attended, gave him a solid grounding in Latin.  Like anybody with even the rudiments of education, he would have known his Bible.  And Greenblatt goes to great lengths to show that Shakespeare would have had ample opportunity to have been exposed to the theater, even at an early age, by the troupes that traveled from town to town.

I especially took note of Greenblatt’s descriptions of the morality plays that were in vogue up until the late 16th century, how Shakespeare may have borrowed and adapted their scope into his own writing.

Indeed, both these works speculate much.  But in taking such a risk, straying from the known into the what-may-have-been, they open a wider world of possibilities than are normally addressed when talking about Shakespeare close to the vest.  Maybe, when measured by actual facts that might never be known, some of what they venture would turn out to be false.  But considering what we have, the conjectures that they offer present a Shakespeare who becomes plausible and three-dimensional and very much alive in my imagination.  it certainly seems that much of what they are describing is true. 

At the very least, they have me reading, learning and wondering more about Shakespeare’s world than I ever dreamed possible. I’ll let you know more as the year unfolds.

Both books are highly recommended.

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