This book manages to be both an easy read for average readers plus appeals to Shakespeare experts. It is not necessary to read Shakespeare's plays to understand the present book - although the book motivates one in the direction of seeing them again or for the for the first time - but few books combine the present level of insight with the easy to read popular writing style as found here.
I have read a few other popular biographies on Shakespeare including the popular biography by Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare, written in 1970 and the 2003 book by Frank Kermode The Age of Shakespeare. These are aimed at average readers and they are both relatively easy to read and both give some insights into the man and his times. The latter book is similar in goals to the present book but it is much shorter and has a more awkward writing style than the present book.
The present book is far above these two earlier popular books, both in detail, information, insights, and ease of reading. Also, the bibliography at the rear that must contain at least 200 other references. The bibliography is in a "notes" format, it is about 16 pages long, and includes many comments and opinions by the author.
The outstanding feature of the present book is that it is very rich in detail and the author is able to interpret many things in Shakespeare's personal life by working backwards from phrases, characters, religious references, school references, alcohol, etc found in his plays and other writings. Following a rough chronological sequence, the author makes the link to Shakespeare's off stage life, including his father, his childhood, religion, later his children, business, marriage, etc.
Many readers will appreciate the book for all its detail. It has a lot of detail and photographs in the almost 400 pages. But the book is a lot more than just detail. It interprets the plays and gives meaning and interpretation to the passages and presents us with ideas on how Shakespeare decided to write a certain passage or why a certain character is in the play, or why they have a certain demeanor, or phrase, or word, or line and why the actor is dressed a certain way or acts in a certain fashion, and how they are connected to external events.
For example, and this must be just one of at least one hundred or two hundred comments and connections, the author explains that lurking in Shakespeare's subconscious are likely many thoughts on his father, the former mayor and powerful Stratford figure who later in life becomes a failure eventually succumbs to financial pressures and must sell off his wife's family farm properties to stay solvent, or simply to make end meets, or to buy alcohol. The following is one of many connections to those thoughts of his father, and his failings as a person. This is typical of Greenblatt's writing and style in the book.
After the author explains the connection he quotes (sometimes two or three different plays - but here one for example):
"God save thee, my sweet boy" says the father figure Falstaff to the young Hal
"Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
(2 Henry IV, 5.5.41, 45-49).
For myself that is a clear explanation that almost anyone can understand, and it is typical of the clarity found in the book. This type of example is repeated over and over again and make up the theme of the book, that is, a series of connections and discussions and comments linking Shakespeares creative writing to the possible sources of inspiration in his background and family.
The book has received a number of outstanding book reviews from Shakespeare experts, artistic directors, professional book reviewers, etc. When you read the book you will understand the attraction of the book. It is easy to read, very easy to read, surprisingly easy to read, but it is also a complicated and well thought book that will delight a broad cross section of readers each with different levels of knowledge about the plays, the man, and his times.