Monday, 30 January 2006

Review: Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd (2005)

Genius must find its time, too, and can quicken only in the general atmosphere of its period.

Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography (2000) didn't impress me all that much. It was altogether too enthusiastic about its subject, and is always at risk of seeming overly partial — especially at the very end of each short chapter. But as a London resident Ackroyd can be forgiven for boosting his home town... Although I don't know how well I'd stomach somebody saying such things about mine. (Maybe there's little chance of that happening.) Much more rewarding is Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002), the book he wrote next, which demonstrates an extraordinary ability to synthesise vast amounts of erudite information and stick to a theme through thick and thin. An idea as fragile as that which is espoused in this book requires a vice-like memory and the means to keep the reader's interest through some quite dense passages. Its chapters are longer and more challenging.

The quote above, of course, comes from Ackroyd's most recent offering: Shakespeare: The Biography, another book of very short and pithy chapters, each introduced by a heading that is amusing in its own right. The typography is of a high standard. The unfailing Ackroyd memory in full swing is again to be experienced as he navigates the reader through facts and ideas culled from the thousands of pages he digested to produce this work. It is possibly much better than the other big, popular Shakespeare biography that is readily available to general readers: Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life (1998). Ackroyd's book has 11 pages of bibliography, two bunches of colour illustrations and an index.

The opening quote summarises Ackroyd's preoccupation with the spirit of place that works on us all. He also introduces notions developed in the cauldron of Albion, such as this:

The drama of the Globe, then, was largely built upon a succession of scenes. The sequence of scenes conforms to the English love of interdependent units, a series of variations on a theme that encourages variety rather than concentration and heterogenity rather than intensity.

This is straight out of Albion, but not the less welcome for that. It is satisfying to find a writer so firmly in command of his material that he can echo himself in successive works without being tiresome. And Shakespeare: The Biography is anything but. I read it in virtually one sitting — an entire day spent curled up on my red vinyl couch.

Sometimes his words become flat with a kind of enthusiastic predictability:

...Falstaff is the essence of Shakespeare, cut free of all ideological and traditional notions. He and his creator go soaring into the empyrean, where there are no earthly values.

Sometimes he sticks to the facts and flutters his hands over them to create journalistic jewels:

The publication of Love's Labour's Lost can be seen ... as a highly significant event in the creation of the modern conception of the writer. It was not the least of Shakespeare's accomplishments to elevate, and perhaps even to create, the status and the reputation of the commercial author.

(He later provides evidence of the economic troubles The King's Men suffered when the playwright pretty much retired in 1614. Shakespeare's fame was very widespread and deep in his time.)

The problem with Shakespeare is that we know so very little about him. Which is the cause of such notions as this:

[Shakespeare] did not know where the words came from; he just knew that they came.

It's hard to blame Ackroyd, since he really tried hard to synthesise a great amount of stuff into 518 pages of entertaining prose:

The Elizabethan age seems always to be on the edge of despair or dissolution, with the prospect of everything crashing down in flames; hence all the bravura and defiance of its major players.

Ackroyd has tried to ensure that we know a little bit more about Shakespeare than we did before.

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