With shelves already creaking under the weight of so many Shakespeare biographies, what need another one? With its definite article, Ackroyd's title seems to imply that this could be the definitive account and, given his previous success in the field of literary biography (Dickens, Chaucer, Blake, Pound, Eliot, the Lambs, More), who can deny that his Shakespeare: The Biography isn't at least worth investigating?
For all its array of footnotes, this is not a work of scholarship (the notes are references to other works, not primary sources). It is, however, a work of insight and empathy of the kind that we might expect from one author writing about another. Given the relative paucity of valuable 'artistic' raw materials (as opposed to legal documents) these qualities are all-important.
Some of the insights provided by Ackroyd seem invaluable - if obvious, in retrospect. It's the first time here, for instance, that I've met the idea that early plays bearing similar titles to Shakespearean works (eg The Troublesome Raigne of King John and The Taming of A Shrew) are not so much source materials for Shakespeare, as early drafts by the selfsame playwright. Ackroyd suggests that by 1589 Shakespeare had written early versions of at least Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, King John, Hamlet and, quite possibly, the apocryphal Edmund Ironside and Edward III as well. This is a very early date, of course, and doesn't reflect scholarly consensus. The beauty of the idea lies in the fact that it does a great deal to fill in much of the gaping hole of the 'missing years' problem. Furthermore, it explains why his rivals - like the embittered malcontents Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe - should have spent so much energy attacking the young playwright who, even by 1589, must have achieved some prominence. (Certainly so by 1592, when Shakespeare is attacked overtly by Greene.) The traditional account, that Shakespeare by this date might merely have written a couple of apprentice pieces, like Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus Andronicus, begins to sound quite unconvincing all of a sudden.
Ackroyd is persuasive in his presentation of a dramatist being shaped by the (theatrical) company working around him. He suggests that the sudden departure or arrival of an important actor significantly changed the character of his plays. A notable example of this process being the replacement of the ad-libbing, dancing clown, Will Kempe, with the 'intellectual fool', Robert Armin, whose arrival heralded roles, from Touchstone on, of 'fools' who regularly break out into song and who are now more 'philosophical'.
A major strength of this biography is that it is part 'life' and part lit crit. Ackroyd the biographer observes, for instance, that in writing Hamlet, Shakespeare draws upon a reservoir of personal experience, including the recent death of his son Hamnet (in 1596) and the even more recent death of his father (1601). Ackroyd the critic then goes on to suggest that the resulting play represents a movement towards greater introspection, of 'interiority' and a refinement of his use of soliloquy, which is now 'the index of an evolving consciousness in which 'this is what I am' gives way to 'this is what I am becoming' '. A yet further layer is provided by Ackroyd the visionary, who divines that the Hamlet of 1601 is a re-working of an earlier play, and that this earlier play was published as the 'bad quarto' of 1594. The Hamlet discussion illustrates the idea of Shakespeare as an evolving artist - one who was capable of writing hurried and imperfect work which was later moulded into the form in which we now know it, via the Folio of 1623. In Ackroyd's words, 'His was always a work in progress.'
But what kind of picture of Shakespeare the man does this biography paint? Ackroyd presents Shakespeare as a detached individual (although loyal to colleagues and friends). One who, both personally and artistically, mistrusted dogma. In religion, his father and his daughter Suzanna were recusants. Although the whole family seems to have had strong Catholicism sympathies, the fact that Suzanna, his favourite daughter, married the Puritan Dr Hall, suggests that tolerance prevailed. Of Shakespeare's learning, Ackroyd tells us that he read solely for his work. He was emphatically not interested in books or in learning for their own sakes. On aesthetics: 'Shakespeare did not have an aesthetic view of the drama at all, but a practical and empirical one.' And philosophy? According to Ackroyd, Shakespeare's whole cast of mind was entirely concrete, and more interested in character and event than in anything abstract. He is portrayed, therefore, as a man motivated by the thing that mattered most to him - success.
This is a very full account of Shakespeare's life that, above all, does much to suggest how some of the 'holes' in his subject's early career can be accounted for. While not being the definitive Shakespearean biography to end all such biographies, perhaps, it is always thought-provoking. Such as when Ackroyd advances the ideas that Shakespeare may have written a lot more than is acknowledged in the 'canon', and (as paradoxical a notion as anything in Romeo and Juliet) the thought that 'In the early years he may not even have been particularly Shakespearian'. Paradoxically again, while not relying on original research, Ackroyd manages to present a highly original take on the dramatist's life.