Not, perhaps, a book which would be seen as a particularly 'good read' by fans of biography, Holden makes it eminently clear from the start that there is scant historical evidence of Shakespeare's life - administrative and legal records, the odd journal entry, bits and pieces, but no substantial account of the man other than his own poetry and plays.
The biographer, therefore, has to shape the creature out of some fairly insubstantial evidence. In Holden's case, he does so by excessive reliance on deconstruction of Shakespeare's work, drawing conclusions about the man's life and character from a textual analysis of his writings.
Shakespeare knew about leather, therefore he had worked in the family tanning business, he understood meat, therefore had been a butcher, his plays demonstrate his knowledge of horses, hence he had worked as an ostler on first arriving in London.
What we get is a skeletal image of the man, fleshed out in somewhat arbitrary fashion by questionable deduction and extrapolation from lines of poetry and prose. Use of textual analysis and reference is all very well, but it can get just a little tenuous at times, and peppering the narrative with quotations from Shakespeare in places transforms biography into fairly bland literary criticism.
Most contentious, perhaps, is Holden's assertion that Shakespeare was a clandestine Catholic with close ties to a Lancashire family who would be persecuted and denounced for their adherence to the European religion. Again, Holden argues from textual analysis - a few lines from the many thousands upon thousands written by the bard. It can appear a touch subjective in places: you suspect that once a conclusion has been drawn, it might be possible to find several lines in Shakespeare's work to substantiate virtually any claim (I have this theory that he was actually a Scotsman called MacSpeer).
Nevertheless, Holden presents Shakespeare as a man from a relatively privileged background - solid yeoman stock, quintessentially English, his father a Stratford burgess, well respected, hard working, and tolerably well off. The boy, Will, would benefit from a local education and enter the world literate, urbane, and erudite. This is no simple peasant.
This is a man who embraces writing as a means of making a living - he writes major 'box office' successes, he becomes a dynamic force in the theatrical economy of his day. When Shakespeare arrives in London, it is a city where the first theatre has just been built, and where speculators are building others. London is a city of people on the make, and professional writers are as much on the make as anyone else - or did you really think art came into it?
Literature, language, and public performance are the roots of a thriving economy - an economy embraced by aristocracy and court as much as by the common people, but an economy in which actors are still seen as little better than thieves and vagabonds. Theatre and its theatricals constitute a demimonde of debauchery and vice.
Holden offers interesting commentaries on the production of plays and the emergence of the theatre. He considers the politics of the time - both secular and sacred. He steps aside to look at aspects of Elizabethan society. But his Shakespeare, the man, is just a little too bland, a little too idealised in places.
It's an entertaining and well argued life of Shakespeare, but not always entirely convincing. It becomes a trifle too academic and arcane to find a place in the heart of biography lovers. It is a bit too contentious to win over the Shakespeare scholar or student of history. And at times it becomes a bit flaccid, at times the narrative becomes quite sedentary, if never actually soporific.
It's a thought-provoking account, and a useful stimulus for students of Shakespeare's writings, but it remains a curate's egg of a biography. Peter Ackroyd's 2005 biography might prove a more satisfying read for many.