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Review: Shakespeare: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd

In this book, Peter Ackrod brings to life not only the playwright himself, but London and Elizabethan theatre. He uses exquisite detail to render a satisfactory portrait of his subjects.

Although Shakespeare is perhaps the best-known author in the English language, it is surprising how little is known about his life. Many authors have conjectured about his life based upon the material that appears in his plays.

Shakespeare was born in the town of Stratford to John and Mary Shakespeare. In the town grammar school, he learned Greek, Latin, and all the other subjects that school children of the 16th century would have studied. At the age of 18 he married Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant with their first child, Sussannah. Later on, the couple would have two more children, twins: Hamnet, who would die as a child, and Judith. Not long after the marriage, however, Shakespeare set out to London to find his fortune there. He started off his career in the theatre by holding horses for gentlemen as they went inside. Later, Shakespeare would serve in varying roles such as prompter, actor, and of course playwright. It is during his time as an actor that Shakespeare began to write.
Shakespeare got many of his stories from other writers. It was not plagiarism as we think of it today; it was true then that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. He borrowed not only from classical writers, but comtemporary ones such as Christopher Marlowe as well. In this book the reader gets an excellent sense of the theatrical world as it existed in 16th century England. The writers were all rivals, but they were collaborators who admired the others' work as well. The book takes us through the writing of many of his different plays. Ackroyd does not give us plot synopses, or analysis; rather, he gives the history of each play itself. As I have mentioned before, not much is known about Shakespeare's life in London; but the author puts the peices together carefully, basing surmises upon actual facts. It is impressive scholarship. Ackroyd, not a Shakespeare scholar himself, but an enthusiast, documents his sources well. He does mention Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt, in his bibliography, but does not cite him in the body of the text. All of Ackroyd's sources are certifiably excellent scholarship, showing that this particular author takes his work very seriously.


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