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Shakespeare: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd
http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Biography-Peter-Ackroyd/dp/0385511396/sr=8-1/qid=1168229234/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-0235884-6493716?ie=UTF8&s=books

Ackroyd has both a scholar's hand at research and a skilled novelist's voice. The former skill-set in particular must have been taxed in writing this book- Shakespeare left frustratingly few direct records behind him, and much of his life needs to be reconstructed from context and circumstantial evidence, with a judicious amount of extrapolation.

The latter facet is one of the few areas in which I have any quibbles. Ackroyd sometimes goes a bit too far in my book, especially in divining Shakespeare's motivations and personality in ways that don't seem far different from wild speculation. However, this doesn't happen often enough to ruin the portrait he paints. Speaking of portraits, Ackroyd seems to somewhat arbitrarily decide which of several possible Shakespeare portraits are genuine (or not), seemingly mostly on the basis of how well they support his image of the man. I also find his reasons for using original spelling in his quotes to be less than compelling- it smacked of pretence rather than of authenticity. But once again, hardly a great fault.

I'm sure this one will annoy the anti-Stratfordians- although Ackroyd hardly mentions the controversy directly, he handily demolishes a number of the elitist arguments against the Stratfordian position, and convincingly demonstrates that Shakespeare had access to all of the source material he needed (and the knowledge to use it) in order to write his plays. No smoking gun- and there may never be one- but still solid, in my book.

But no matter who wrote the plays, Ackroyd paints a compelling picture of the world in which they were performed. England in those days was a place of great energy and enthusiasm, but also of paranoia. Crypto-Catholic plotting, political maneuvering, the burgeoining frontiers of the New World and the unrest in Europe... he shows the reader a marvellous and convoluted world, fascinating and dangerous. One can easily see how this energy (both dark and light) entered into the plays.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone who is interested either in William Shakespeare or the world of Elizabethan England.

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Thanks for the review! One of the things I love about Ackroyd is how he weaves in the issues and environs of the time and how they affected his subject. Looking forward to adding this to my reading list. :)

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