Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

I got bitten by the Shakespeare bug a while back, and since then I’ve been working hard to understand the man behind the drama, and thus the drama itself. After several lesser books of background information, I discovered James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which put an end in my mind to the authorship debate. Prof. Marc C. Conner’s Great Courses lecture series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare peeled back the curtain on the plays. Both of those titles were blessings on this road. This book does the work of both of those indirectly, putting the man in the midst of his setting and using his own work to help illustrate how he and his works developed side by side.

One of the interesting things about this book is that it calls up all of the points of refute used in the authorship debate and smooths out virtually every wrinkle without trying, in a manner akin to a scholastic aikido. Where little is known, the norms of the time and place are called forth in conjunction with lines and scenes from the plays or the poems, in some cases giving us double and even triple meanings.

Shakespeare not only emerges from this book as a fully-realized and considerably less romanticized individual, but so too do many of his contemporaries, as well as the locales, and the politics and turmoils of the age. I feel privileged to have found this book after so many fall starts and discouragements.

As narrator, Simon Vance is the ideal choice. Vance is consistently one of two tied in the #1 spot for my favorite narrator due to his clarity, eloquence, and ability to sound both enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the material. It feels as though he’s not reading a book, but rather engaging in personal discourse about it… except, of course, where he reads chapter headings.

5 stars

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