Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

Tim O'Neil

Seemingly no kernel of isolated trivia or controversial factoid is small enough to escape the author's notice.


Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Length: 592
Subtitle: The Biography
Price: $32.50
Author: Peter Ackroyd
US publication date: 2005-10
Amazon affiliate

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.

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.





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.