We hardly ever buy books when they’re freshly published, which is why we’re only now getting around to Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, which came out in 2005. It was a Father’s Day gift this year from our Goneril, the eldest of our three daughters.
Now, Emsworth has grave doubts as to whether the subject of this “biography” was actually the author of the “Shakespeare” plays and poems. (See this post, and this one too.) We think it far more likely that Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers. But we still think Ackroyd’s book is a worthy read.
Peter Ackroyd is a Stratfordian, and like most of his kind he deals with the “authorship” question mainly by pretending to ignore it. His book barely mentions Oxford at all. But Shakespeare authorship was surely on his mind, because good portions of this “biography” amount to an advocacy brief on behalf of the traditional candidate.
Not that it’s a bad brief. We grant that Ackroyd cites a few circumstances that affirmatively tend to link the Stratford man to the writing of the plays. But they’re not nearly enough, in quality or quantity, to convince Emsworth. A lot of what Ackroyd gleans about the writer from the internal evidence of the plays and sonnets — which is his main technique — simply can’t be related to the man from Stratford. Indeed, Ackroyd sometimes admits as much.
For instance, Ackroyd says there is so much woodland imagery in As You Like It and other plays that the playwright had to have been a country boy (as the Stratford man was), not a city boy. There are so many references to gloves and how they’re made, he says, that the playwright must have known a glover (it’s known that William Shakespeare’s father was a glover).
That is the sort of thing Oxfordians do, too. They point out (to take two examples out of a great many) that whoever wrote Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew almost certainly had first-hand knowledge of the geography and customs of Italy (as de Vere did) and that the playwright had first-hand knowledge of the ways of royals and noblemen (as de Vere had).
Often as not, though, what Ackroyd takes from the plays doesn’t match up to anything we know about the life of the actor from Stratford, which of course isn’t much. Because the plays are riddled with references to falconry, Ackroyd says, the playwright must have known a lot about it — so he infers that, at some point, William Shakespeare must have worked as a tutor for a nobleman who kept falcons. And from the fact that there’s a lot of legal terminology in the plays, Ackroyd concludes that William Shakespeare must have spent time as apprentice to a solicitor in Stratford.
This is just guesswork. There’s no other evidence that the Stratford man ever worked as a tutor or ever studied law. On the other hand, it is known that as a boy Edward de Vere was tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, who was devoted to falconry, at Smith’s estate at Ankerwycke. It is also known that de Vere was actually admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1566 to study law.
Some of Ackroyd’s other points are a bit of a stretch, too. For instance, stage directors are sparse in the Shakespeare plays, from which Ackroyd infers that the playwright himself was at the company’s rehearsals to tell the rest of the players what to do. But that’s something that might strike you only if you already assumed that William Shakespeare, the actor, wrote the plays. Ackroyd correctly notes that strife between brothers is a theme in Shakespeare plays (for instance, Edgar and Edmund in King Lear, Prospero and Antonio in The Tempest, Orlando and Oliver in As You Like It) — from which he posits that William Shakespeare, the eldest boy in his family, had trouble with his younger brothers. It’s pure speculation; there’s no other evidence of it.
For all this, we don’t hesitate to recommend Shakespeare: The Biography. Peter Ackroyd is a gracious writer; we know him from of old as the author of our favorite biography of Charles Dickens. Like all Shakespeare “biographies,” only a fraction of his book deals directly with its ostensible subject; this book is essentially a history of the London theater from 1580 to 1620.
But it’s still full of interesting things we didn’t know. And many of the chapters of this book are excellent essays about the plays; Ackroyd’s pleasure in writing about something he loves is transparent.