I didn’t fully appreciate a good biography until after my History masters. During my undergraduate degree studying English Literature, I had leaned towards a “Practical Criticism” approach. All that other stuff was frankly a distraction for 18-22 year old me.
Indeed, the issue of “did-Shakespeare-write-those-plays-or-was-it-some-richer-bloke?” still galls me. I wrote an essay in my second year essentially screaming “DOES IT MATTER?”
And to a certain extent, I stand by that exclamation. After all, we have no uncorrupted copies of any of Shakespeare’s plays, and the extent to which they were even penned by one person is arguable.
The real benefit of biographies is really about context: a biography showing us Shakespeare’s life and the theatre scenes in the London of the 1600s is invaluable for adding that something extra, something contextual, to our reading of the plays. Also, if you’re a teacher, you probably have to teach something about who Shakespeare was. Here are some biographies of Shakespeare I have read and found useful.
Shakespeare: the biography by Peter Ackroyd
Ackroyd’s is my favourite biography, so I’d like to start here. His style is clear and his ideas concise. This biography is especially strong at linking the plays to the life; bringing us to see the precise links between an Elizabethan man and the drama he was likely to produce.
Early on, for example, Ackroyd brings to us the somewhat surprising truth of the decline of the “old values” and the feudal system of patronage, and the rise of a new, specifically secular, economy: this is by no means a world devoid of the Church, but we need to recognise how in flux the institution was; Ackroyd remarks: “what happens when old concepts of faith and authority are usurped, when old ties of patronage and obligation are sundered? It is the transition from Lear to Goneril and Regan, from Duncan to Macbeth.”
While acknowledging prior theatrical history, Ackroyd argues that Shakespeare also “transcended” it: he speaks of “the Vice” character, a stock medieval “anybody” being newly realised in Richard III; and indeed we can see this figure evolve to the Edgar and Iago of later brilliance. Though Ackroyd also contends that: “in the most sublime reaches of Shakespeare’s art there is no morality at all. There is only the soaring human will in consort with the imagination.”
The chapters in this tome are pleasingly brief, which, like all uses of short chapters, aids understanding and can allow this book to be read over a longer period of time.
Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
Greenblatt is famous among critics as being foundational in the idea of New Historicism: the notion that the text is not only affected by its historical context, but that the text also creates and has an impact on that historical context. It has been noted that the theatre was seen as secondary, unimportant, when Shakespeare began writing; only with his career was it seen as something worthy of being printed and esteemed: a clear example of a writer’s impact on his time.
Greenblatt writes in a warm and welcoming style; he is far from the idea many of us have of an esteemed critic. His book takes a thematic, rather than strictly chronological, look at the life and work of his subject. Greenblatt is also rather more willing to include hearsay and unsubstantiated truths, all with massive caveats, which makes for fun reading. In these nuggets there is always a coral of truth: these legends tell us something about what people wanted to believe of their bard. In addition, this biography is the stronger for its assumptions: we know so very little we can be sure of about Shakespeare, there is some necessity to look at the evidence and make a very good guess: for example, taking a truth from an absence, Greenblatt muses: “from this supremely eloquent man, there have been found no love letters to Anne [Hathaway, his wife], no signs of shared joy or grief, no words of advice, not even any financial transactions.”
This freedom allows Greenblatt to imagine many tenuous considerations: how much did Shakespeare revise his work? Did he in fact hate his wife? Did he have a physical affair with the man to whom the sonnets are addressed? Greenblatt’s long affiliation with the Renaissance allows this freedom; he almost inhabits the world himself, and the result is convincing.
The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
I believe that this is the most widely read biography of Shakespeare, so perhaps it goes without exploration. Bate opens his text with an assurance that we can know nothing certainly, as well as reassuring us that, even if we did, “an Elizabethan play was a collaborative work that belonged to the theatrical company which performed it every bit as much as to the dramatist who wrote it.”
This text is especially strong in referencing other Shakespearean critics, from his contemporaries up to today, giving a marvelous overview of what “the book people” have thought about him through the ages. This is particularly strong in the chapter regarding the authorship of “Shakespeare”, where we receive a concise survey of that which scholars have posited.
Bate’s major approach is as a pragmatist: he refuses to romaticise Shakespeare, and instead explores the economic and situational prerogatives which drove him to create.
Shakespeare: the invention of the human by Harold Bloom
Is this, or is this not, the best title of a book ever? Ok – I’m cheating, it’s not a biography. I’m sitting here with three remaining Shakespeare biographies thinking… Hm. I’m not sure how great these are. This, on the other hand, I am willing to recommend.
Harold Bloom, if you aren’t in the know, is a monumentally prolific literary critic. He write books on vast swathes of literature, seemingly refusing to specialise, if you go by his printed output. He writes about almost everything. You’ve probably heard of “the anxiety of influence” – that was Bloom’s baby.
This text is superlative among Shakespeare criticism for its ease of reading and its enormous scope. Bloom takes every single play and writes about it, linking each to Shakespeare’s presumed life and known context. Teachers: this is one book which will serve you all your days.
This is very much, though, Bloom’s book; he doesn’t like to reference other critics. Part of its charm comes from the bombast with which he writes, although I can see how readers might love or hate it.
And so I round up my little trip around some Shakespeare biographies, having enjoyed feeling like a student again, if only for a brief moment.