The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

by Tim O'Neil

3 October 2005


Considering the fact that William Shakespeare remains one of the most studied and celebrated human beings in the history of the species, any implicit claims made by the definitive article “The” may seem more specious than intended. The world of Shakespearean scholarship is wide, and there can be little doubt that the subject retains an intrinsic public interest that far outstrips all other figures of the English canon. As such, Shakespeare’s primacy in our cultural imagination almost moots any attempt to produce a “definitive” statement, a self-evident fact which renders Ackroyd’s dogged attempts at creating a Shakespeare for all seasons all the more frustrating.

Ackroyd’s tone throughout the book is that of a tireless and imaginative raconteur, an endlessly resourceful investigator and a textual analyst of the first order. That all of these myriad virtues have been arrayed in the service of Ackroyd’s narrative would seem at first blush to be the book’s chief merit. But the fact that all of these attributes are deployed seemingly without reserve renders the book leaden and—to borrow Ackroyd’s favorite phrase—more than a little otiose. Seemingly no kernel of isolated trivia or controversial factoid is small enough to escape the author’s notice, and few factoids escape thorough mastication. That there are undoubtedly a multitude of anecdotes and historical asides that could have been included but were left aside is cold comfort: the endless stream of minutiae acts as ballast, preventing the narrative from developing into something more than merely an occasionally illuminating episodic slog.

cover art


Peter Ackroyd

The Biography

(Nan A. Talese)

It cannot be ignored that Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the most difficult possible subjects for any potential biographer. His life remains mostly shadowed, with rare flashes of luminescence provided by the frequently apocryphal words of his peers and contemporaries. The copious records of his business transactions and occasional legal documents provide the shape and outline of his life, but ironically for someone who contributed so much to our cultural understanding of interiority, the inner workings of his own mind are forever closed to us. The only evidence he has left us of his thoughts—the plays and assorted poetry—are (as has been observed throughout history) of such a diverse and universal nature as to defy any but the most dedicated biographer.

Ackroyd is nothing if not dedicated. The book shines whenever discussion turns to the plays and poems themselves: Ackroyd’s knowledge of 16th and 17th century England enables him to place the plays in the context of their times, to engrossing effect. This context reveals hidden meaning in seemingly familiar objects, such as the explication of contemporaneous events which influenced his work at various periods. The picture of Shakespeare that emerges from Ackroyd’s painstaking recreation is not the image in mind from our communal memory of Shakespeare as a timeless genius of lofty ambition, but a consummate businessman of shrewd means, a pragmatist, very much a man of his time, obsessed to an almost obsequious degree with issues of social rank and status. To his credit, while Ackroyd may entertain most biographical speculation of reasonable providence, he knows enough to maintain that in many matters—particularly pertaining to how much of Shakespeare’s own life was reflected in analogous events in certain of his plays—we must remain frustratingly ignorant. Barring the blockbuster (and almost impossibly unlikely) discovery of a hidden diary or testament, these questions can never properly be answered. Idle speculation is, in many cases, as close as we will ever get to the truth.

Thankfully, while Ackroyd entertains a bewildering and frankly stultifying tolerance for the least cogent pieces of trivia (such as the fact that he planted mulberry trees in his Stratford garden), he remains blessedly mute on the evergreen subject of alternate Shakespeares. It is accepted as a given that Shakespeare wrote the plays to which we attribute him, and alternate theories are mentioned only in derisive passing. Ackroyd applies the blade of Occam’s Razor to the subject of Shakespeare’s seemingly limited education by providing us a picture of the playwright as tireless researcher, constantly reading and learning with a rapacious eye towards raw material that could be processed into dramatic alloy. Those who maintain that Shakespeare did not possess the capacity to write his plays reveal themselves, in this light, as more than a little condescending.

Considering the general audience at which this volume is aimed, the patchy tone and Brobdingnagian reams of errata make for a frustrating narrative. Considering Ackroyd’s skill at synthesizing historical and textual sources for extended passages, it is regrettable that he was unable to improve on the volume’s poor signal-to-noise ratio. Almost every excellent expository turn—be it of 16th century theater conventions or London commerce—runs on exceedingly long. Opportunities to provide context invariably lose sight of their subject.

Invariably, Shakespeare remains as much of an enigma at the conclusion of Ackroyd’s biography as at the outset. So much of his life remains hidden behind the ineradicable barriers of time and memory that it is almost literally impossible to reconstruct a modern trajectory for his life. We are left with an accumulation of data which, when grafted, produce an exhaustive outline of the subject’s form, but no hint of its mass or depth. The mystery of Shakespeare’s character will remain just that—a mystery—to be debated and discussed forever. The challenges of writing an effective narrative for such a consummate enigma boils down to a matter of elaboration: providing just enough information to define the subject without obscuring him. Despite his obvious affinity for the subject Ackroyd loses sight of his goal, and recurring moments of clarity cannot compensate for an overall unwillingness to pare down the accumulated weeds of multiple centuries’ investigation.

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