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In Search of Shakespeare Hardcover – 22 May 2003
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There can be few more appropriate writers and TV presenters to go In Search of Shakespeare than Michael Wood. Having already gone In Search of England and pursued the history of the Conquistadors in his recent acclaimed series, Wood has now taken on The Bard in the book to accompany his latest TV series. This is well-trodden ground, but Wood tells the story with relish and an historian's eye for detail, dismissing Bardolatry in favour of a "tale of one man's life, lived through a time of revolution--a time when not only England, but the larger world beyond, would go through momentous changes."
From Shakespeare's early days in Warwickshire to the sophisticated world of theatrical life and political skulduggery in London, Wood makes few claims to new discoveries, but offers a refreshingly global understanding of what drove Shakespeare and his creativity, from his Catholic origins to the Black Londoners that he met every day. Wood too often has to "enter the realm of diverting speculation rather than that of verifiable historical fact". Did Shakespeare have an affair with Emilia Lanier? Did he die an alcoholic? Wood colourfully poses such questions, though too many remain unanswered; he cheerfully admits that he's no Shakespeare scholar, but a popular historian who has enthusiastically placed Shakespeare back into the extraordinarily fertile world that produced him. --Jerry Brotton
Michael Wood evokes the physical and intellectual environment in which Shakespeare lived and worked with vivid and original immediacy. -- Professor Stanley Wells, Editor of The Oxford Shakespeare
Shakespeare's world is brought alive more vividly than in any other biography of him that I have read. -- Sunday Telegraph, Jun 8th 2003
Wood is a perceptive, entertaining and enthusiastic companion. -- Sunday Times, Jun 8th 2003
Wood paints a provocative portrait -- The Washington Post
Wood's is an honest, well-organised account that will serve the reader well. -- Independent on Sunday
[This book] is excellent. Faceless yet forceful, Shakespeare emerges from the book as the master general he must have been. -- Clive James, Times Literary Supplement
[Wood] has thrown new light on our poet's long-hidden life. -- Robert Giroux, Los Angeles Times
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This is an excellent read, including so much more than the equally excellent TV series showed. In the prologue, Wood talks of Shakespeare's father John, leading the team covering over the religious paintings on the walls of Stratford's guild chapel: "So here's a parable at the start of our tale ... what lies behind actions and words in an age when covering up, concealment and dissimulation became the order of the day?" Hence the difficulties inherent in the `Search for Shakespeare'. Born on the cusp between two worlds, "Shakespeare may be ... the first modern man, ... but he was also the last great product of the Gothic Christian West." He crossed the gap between a fading medieval mindset and the new Renaissance thinking: "New worlds are discovered" in Shakespeare's works; "old worlds are lost. ... This period of cultural revolution [the ascendancy of Elizabethan Protestantism] spanned most of Shakespeare's lifetime and is crucial to an understanding of his mind and thought."
This forms the basis for Wood's account of Shakespeare's shadowy life and works. He digs up very little, if any new evidence, although he has some intriguing things to say about portraits and relationships: no, the beauty of his book is that it provides a radical new view of the man and his times for a popular audience. For example, "for most nineteenth-century scholars it was simply unthinkable that the bard's family should have been tainted by Catholicism". This link with Catholicism is probably Wood's major contention to Shakespeare studies. He writes how, "the battle for the [Catholic] soul of old England was almost lost. It would be left to John [Shakespeare]'s son to carry it down in a different guise to later generations."
In addition, Wood postulates that the young boy must have gone to Stratford's grammar school: "the myth that Shakespeare must have been a provincial" is surely that - a myth. Wood also sees references in his plays of his Warwickshire dialect and he goes on to explore what literacy and a grammar school education meant in Elizabethan England. In this way, Wood in the book can dig deeper into the detail than in the TV series, such as in Shakespeare's marriage or in the composition of his library. Indeed, rather than the book accompanying the TV series, the depth of detail and wealth of knowledge exhibited in the book leads me to conclude that the latter is a `mere', though substantial, introduction to the book.
Wood cleverly cross-references to Shakespeare's plays as evidence for his theories. And it is well that Wood is not blind to the defects of Elizabethan theatre: "To be sure, it often churned out mindless drivel, sentimental pap or blatant government propaganda, seamed with bigotry, jingoism and racism." But there are also problems and unanswered questions for the reader - or, at least, for this reader. It is not made clear, for instance, how Greene's publisher's apology alludes to Shakespeare. And why does Wood believe that the passionate love for the boy in the sonnets was "apparently not physically consummated"? We are not told and Wood fails to explore the concept of male bonding in Elizabethan England in any detail. And I was a little taken aback at Wood's declaration that "Themes such as the corrupting power of lust on the soul, guilt and infidelity run through the latter sonnets, which are all the more explicable if Shakespeare's upbringing was Catholic." Huh?
Bad points? There are no references, footnotes or endnotes. Wood is usually honest and clear in his doubts and in the paucity of the evidence behind his conjectures, but sometimes he can jump to conclusions without fully explaining the reasoning. For example, one of his sonnets is seen as being written in his youth, for his marriage day, and hints that he must have read Thomas Watson's collection, "So young Shakespeare was already ambitious to be a versifier." But throughout that sequence of intimated facts, there is precious little evidence provided to the reader for these conjectures. Indeed, one whole chapter (The Lost Years, 1582-1592) postulates "a tale held together by a chain of conjectures: plausible, suggestive, but no more." Nevertheless, Wood is usually generous in his quotes and explains his sources.
Other niggling points? It would have been useful to have had a family tree, especially as Wood concentrates a great deal - and thankfully so - on the early years. It would also have been beneficial to have had a plan of Stratford in a style similar to those of Shakespeare's London provided later in the volume. The illustrations are excellent; they are credited at the book's end but their sources are not. The index is found wonting: I wished to revisit the claims that William Shakeshaft in Lancashire might have been our man, but Shakeshaft is not listed. Neither is my home town of Plymouth despite more than one entry in the text.
At the end of his journey, Wood talks about the director of the TV series, who had previously worked for him on programmes about the conquistadors and Alexander the Great, having to swap the Andes and the Hindu Kush for the delights of the M40. Well, after having both read the book and bought the DVD, I can vouch that the search for Shakespeare was probably just as exciting, as intriguing, and as exhausting as the others. But it's a search worth exploring.
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