Although at times tedious and dry, Ackroyd does an admirable job of piecing together the surviving documents of Shakespeare's life and shows that despAlthough at times tedious and dry, Ackroyd does an admirable job of piecing together the surviving documents of Shakespeare's life and shows that despite popular perception, quite a few documents exist of the Bard. This work is not for the novice Shakespeare reader or scholar as it presumes quite a bit of knowledge of Elizabethan England, London, theatre history, and Shakespeare's plays. It is also not a work for the Anti-Stratfordians who all too often proclaim that the provincial son of a glove-maker could not possibly have written the greatest works of literature in the English language.
However, it should not be said that Ackroyd is fawning. No indeed. He takes the meticulous approach of a scholar, at times a legalistic approach examining land and other legal transactions to trace the movements of the Shakespeare family. He is methodical, and because of his attention to detail and methodology his argument (if there is an argument) is strong. Although it could be said that Ackroyd purpose seems at times to dispell the Anti-Stratfordians' promotion of Oxford or Bacon or whomever is the front-running these days in the authorship question, his approach is subtle enough to suggest that he simply seeks an examination of Shakespeare's life and times. And indeed, regardless of any bias, Ackroyd succeeds. His evidence is convincing (though, for me, at least it is a bit like preaching to the choir). I will never and can never take the Anti-Stratfordians seriously. It smacks too much of snobbery - that a man from the artisan classes could rise to be the greatest writer in the English language - the umbrage! But no, Ackroyd shows, quite adroitly, that Shakespeare's background was never so provincial. He was the son of the mayor of Stratford upon Avon and educated at the Stratford Grammar School, a more than adequate institution for its time. He would have learned basic Latin and the Classics and all the allusions to mythology so apparent in his later works.
If anything, Ackroyd shows that the Shakespeare's family constant striving for gentility showed a tenacity to gain knowledge and favour whenever the opportunity presented. Shakespeare's ambition is rooted here. As another reviewer cited on Goodreads, his greatest ambition as not to be the best English playwright, though it may have been a point of pride, but to enter the ranks of the gentility.
Ackroyd's work is strongest when she allows the playwright to speak for himself, as well as drawing points of views from his contemporaries and critics. He is most alive here, most real - beyond the icon literary history and cultural history have built him to be.
Shakespeare's plays provide so many clues to his background and his life, rather like the historical footprints provided by legal documents such as landholdings and theatre billings, and the Stationer's Register, his imagery, his word choice, and his dialect shine though. The Catholic sympathies of the Stratford Grammar School led to so many headmasters' dismissal, the suspected Recusancy (that is, adherents to the Catholic faith despite Elizabeth I's edicts) of neighbours and family provide the foundation for Shakespeare later vivid Catholic imagery of the mass - the Pieta-like imagery of Lear and Cordelia, the messianic Henry V and Hamlet, the blood sacrifice of Hamlet, the majesty of Richard II in defeat recalls Christ on Calvary. All this belongs to the Mass - which was (and is still) pageantry. And of course the Catholic Passion Plays which drifted through his Stratford boyhood and first exposed him to the theatrical world. Whether or not Shakespeare was ever a practicing Catholic is moot, his was evidently strongly influenced by the cultural Catholicism of his surroundings.
And, of course, maybe his most lasting and revolutionary aspect of cultural impact came through his very dialect. Shakespeare's language was not the language of London nor the aristocracy. His was the slang, and lilting West Midlands, provincial Warwickshire - yet it became the standard for modern elegant English.
For anyone interested in Shakespearean studies, theatre history, or Tudor England, I highly recommend this work. I know that I will be checking out Ackroyd's other works....more
Definitely not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays - primarily for the characterisation of Cressida. But then, I am biased towards Chaucer's "TroiluDefinitely not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays - primarily for the characterisation of Cressida. But then, I am biased towards Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde," as Criseyde has more depth than in Shakespeare's version. More later when I've finished travelling between conferences....more