Thousands of books have been written about the playwright, but none has borne Ackroyd's unique and accessible stamp. His method is to position the playwright in the context of his world, exploring everything from Stratford's humble town to its fields of wildflowers; discerning influences on the plays from unexpected quarters; and entering London with the playwright as modern theatre, as we know it, is just beginning to emerge.
Writing as though we are observing Shakespeare and his circle of friends, patrons, managers, and fellow actors and writers, Ackroyd is able to see Shakespeare's genius from within, so we feel that Ackroyd the writer merges with Shakespeare the writer, the poet, the man; and thus with great sympathy and clarity we experience the way in which Shakespeare worked.
Shakespeare: The Biography is quite unlike other more analytic biographies that have been written. Rather, Peter Ackroyd has used his skill, his extraordinary knowledge, and his historical intuition to craft this major full-scale book on one of the most towering figures of the English language.
©2005 Peter Ackroyd; (P)2005 Random House, Inc.
"Ackroyd's biography cumulatively gives one a feeling that one has lived for a brief time in Shakespeare's world. Ackroyd constructs an intricate mosaic of Elizabethan context, which brings us closer to the shadowy figure." (Publishers Weekly)
"Ackroyd brings to his biographical reading the imaginative insights of a gifted poet and novelist, along with the passions of a scholar....Vivid and capacious, a life study worthy of its subject." (Booklist)
I've loved all of Ackroyd's biographies (Dickens, TS Eliot, Blake). One thing Ackroyd does better than anyone else is explain the texts of a writer in contemporary terms, so that here he explains Shakespeare's imagery (flowers, trees, landscapes, even books and events) in terms of what the man probably experienced. It made me want to reread Shakespeare from start to finish--surely how a biographer wants a reader to react.
This is a wonderful book. I never read nor heard nor watched Shakespeare's plays, but now I will and will have benefitted from the understanding that Mr Ackroid provids. I listened to the book because I knew I had missed an experience.
The reader, Simon Vance, was excellent and must have tried to connect Shakespeare's friend John Aubry with Patrick O'Brian's Captain of the "Surprise".
A very nicely put together portrait of Shakespeare and his time, the late 1500s, early 1600s in London. Ackroyd plays out the consequences of most of the mainstream conjectures on Shakespeare's life (no one really knows much about him, of course; he left barely a personal trace at all in the records even after centuries of digging). I would've liked a bit more general historical background, especially on the everyday cultural life of London, but Ackroyd had only so many pages to work with, and it's pretty long and full of detail as is! There's perhaps a bit too much conjecture and conclusion drawn on thin evidence on Shakespeare's alleged crypto-Catholicism. This seems to be a particular hobbyhorse of Ackroyd's, and the evidence is slim that it mattered that much to Shakespeare or that any Catholic underground culture shaped his life and work. Ackroyd always seems to be reaching when he makes these conclusions in the book. But I was generally enthralled throughout this account; Ackroyd's novelist's skills made the writing clear and vivid and those qualities in the prose made listening extremely easy and enjoyable.
Say something about yourself!
I got bitten by the Shakespeare bug a while back, and since then I've been working hard to understand the man behind the drama, and thus the drama itself. After several lesser books of background information, I discovered James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which put an end in my mind to the authorship debate. Prof. Marc C. Conner's Great Courses lecture series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare peeled back the curtain on the plays. Both of those titles were blessings on this road. This book does the work of both of those indirectly, putting the man in the midst of his setting and using his own work to help illustrate how he and his works developed side by side.
One of the interesting things about this book is that it calls up all of the points of refute used in the authorship debate and smooths out virtually every wrinkle without trying, in a manner akin to a scholastic aikido. Where little is known, the norms of the time and place are called forth in conjunction with lines and scenes from the plays or the poems, in some cases giving us double and even triple meanings.
Shakespeare not only emerges from this book as a fully-realized and considerably less romanticized individual, but so too do many of his contemporaries, as well as the locales, and the politics and turmoils of the age. I feel privileged to have found this book after so many fall starts and discouragements.
As narrator, Simon Vance is the ideal choice. Vance is consistently one of two tied in the #1 spot for my favorite narrator due to his clarity, eloquence, and ability to sound both enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the material. It feels as though he's not reading a book, but rather engaging in personal discourse about it... except, of course, where he reads chapter headings.
The book tells us little about Shakespeare himself. Rather, it is a chronicle of Elizabethan times in England. We learn more about his contemporaries, e.g. Johnson, than we do about Shakespeare. There is even more information in the book that touches on the physical layout of the Globe Theater than the playwrite. The book is, however, a fairly concise, yet informative listing of his plays.
Shakespeare: A Biography is a rare achievement, a richly detailed and balanced portrait of a figure whose creative genius and biographical normalcy invite theatrical excesses of speculation. This work allows the reader to focus on the arc, the patterns, and the concrete achievements of Shakespeare's life and work. Other books may fire the reader's imagination more, but for a passionately comprehensive Account of Shakespeare's life, his emergent profession, his creative process, and the time in which he lived, Ackroyd's is the finest imaginable overview. Simon Vance reads beautifully, clearly, and with just enough dramatic flair to enliven the listening experience without wearying the listener.
Thorough coverage of his life and writings, set in context of the times during which he lived. Think you know Shakespeare? Listen to this!
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