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on 11 May 2008
My experience with Peter Ackroyd has been rather mixed. I enjoyed several of his novels: "Chatterton", "First Light", "Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem" with its clever twist, the weird and wonderful "Hawksmoor" especially... but I found I only enjoyed dipping into "London: The Biography", and I totally failed to engage with "Albion: The Origins Of The English Imagination".
While writing a "biography" of London was a sufficiently original approach to justify the use of the definite article, it was perhaps just a teeny-weeny bit presumptuous, in such a heavily populated area of scholarship, to entitle this work "Shakespeare/The Biography". After all, Ackroyd's biographies of Dickens and Blake are just called "Dickens" and "Blake". And, at the beginning of his hefty bibliography, the author himself confesses to his lack of particular expertise in matters Shakespearean:
"I came to this study as a Shakespearian [sic] enthusiast rather than expert, and my debt to previous scholarship is as obvious as it is profound."
It would be interesting to know what the specialists have made of this. I certainly found it as readable as most biographies (not my own specialist area, or my preferred one, by a long way...), but it ironically confirmed for me what I have always thought, in other words that Shakespeare's works are such that any information about his life simply does not stand comparison. And I concluded, once again, that Shakespeare is so much in a quasi-mythical class of his own that any attempt at writing about the man is perilous at best, and perhaps even irrelevant...
Having said all that, I found a lot to ponder here, and had no difficulty at all in keeping reading. But time and time again I found myself saying "Yes, must read that bit in "Hamlet"/"Twelfth Night"/whatever... again." (And it also made me want to read the plays I confess to never having read: "Pericles"/"Coriolanus"/"All's Well That Ends Well"/whatever... )
Ackroyd clearly knows the complete oeuvre extremely well indeed. His observations about the plays are often extremely interesting, if occasionally rather idiosyncratic, not to say debatable... On the other hand, he is not always convincing in what he imagines about the period:
"When Shakespeare includes the famous stage-direction in "The Winter's Tale", 'Exit, pursued by a bear', the audience would have been able to picture the scene quite precisely."
Except, of course, that the audience wouldn't have been reading the stage-direction, given that they'd have been watching the play, and consequently wouldn't have needed to actually picture anything...
There are bits of information that are given twice in different parts of the book, such as the one about Shakespeare rewriting the character of Emilia in "Othello" to make her more sympathetic to the audience.
There are disappointments (in my view) too, such as Ackroyd having much more to say about the history plays than about the tragedies.
To his credit, Ackroyd gives an extremely vivid picture of London life in Elizabethan England. But then he'd already "done" London in another book. In fact several others...
So... good, if occasionally controversial, on the plays. Very good on London. And on Shakespeare the man... well, so-so. And does anybody really care?