The tyranny of "may". The life of the great playwright remains as mysterious as ever, finds John Sutherland

Shakespeare: the biography

Peter Ackroyd <em>Chatto & Windus, 546pp, £25</em>

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This is the third big biography of Shakespeare to appear in the past year, following hard on Stephen Greenblatt's bestselling Will in the World and James Shapiro's well-received 1599: a year in the life of William Shakespeare. Peter Ackroyd is no card-carrying Shakespearean. He has no doctorate in the subject and no previous publications in the field (although publications he does have: it seems just yesterday that he was bringing out biographies of T S Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake and Thomas More). Who, then, is he to write "the biography"?

Labourers in the Shakespeare industry, willing as they are to snap at each other's heels, will applaud, as did the Dickensians and Blakeians. Ackroyd is the least antagonistic of biographers. He never sets up as an expert. His approach is conscientiously and politely to review all the scholarly evidence with an outsider's judicious eye, put it into order, and present an eminently readable account for the general reader.

There are no new facts to be turned up about Shakespeare; everything signifi-cant was logged by Sam Schoenbaum in his "documentary life" 30 years ago. What posterity has, and will always have, is meagre bones that demand less the skills of the biographer than those of a palaeontologist. We do not even know, authentically, what Shakespeare looked like. The anatomy of his career is tantalisingly fragmentary.

He was born in Stratford. The exact date is uncertain. His father, John Shakespeare, may have been a closet Catholic, but he was canny enough to avoid indictment. John was a tradesman whose great aim in life was to be a gentleman. William's mother may (like many of the women in his plays) have been a "strong-minded woman". Young William was educated at the grammar school, which he may have disliked. As Ackroyd notes: "Shakespeare's references to schooldays are not entirely happy." The education he received was none the less sound. He was not a university man - something which may have liberated his genius from the straitjacketed classical learning that Ben Jonson cattily observed he lacked.

On leaving school, Shakespeare may have been apprenticed to his father's trade as a glover; he may have been put to work in a lawyer's office; he may have been an usher in a school; he may have joined a travelling theatre company. He may have been an incorrigible poacher of rich men's game. He may have drunk too much of Stratford's good ale. He may, for a longish period, have been a tutor in a Catholic household in the north of England - steeping himself in the dangerous subterfuges of recusancy.

Registry proof exists that at the precocious age of 18 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, heavily pregnant at the time. The marriage may have been unhappy. After the birth of their three children Shakespeare took off for London, leaving his family in Stratford. For most of the rest of his life Shakes-peare was an absentee husband. He may not have been faithful.

London's theatres were at the dawning of their golden age. Shakespeare began at the bottom of the ladder. He may have been a very talented actor. He was certainly adept at ab-sorbing the new things being done by leading spirits such as Lyly, Peele, Kyd and - pre-eminently - Marlowe. Moving through various companies and their lordly patrons, he established himself as the leading dramatist of his age. When regular visitations of the plague closed the theatres, he turned his hand to poetry, at which he also excelled.

Like his father, Shakespeare was commercially astute. His later work may reflect a growing melancholy - or he may simply have been varying his theatrical wares for new fashions. After the Globe burned down he returned to Stratford as one of its most prosperous citizens. He died in 1616: prematurely by our standards, full of years by his. The cause of death may have been tertiary syphilis, alcoholism or typhoid fever (Ackroyd favours the last).

No biographer can escape that tyrannous "may". In the absence of the biographer's customary factual materials, Greenblatt took the Emersonian line that "Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare", and deduced a life from a forensic reading of the texts. Shapiro adopted a strenuously contextual approach, putting Shakespeare, like a black hole, at the centre of a world that his genius sucked in and whose contours give us a precise silhouette of its greatest spokesman.

Ackroyd employs both techniques, reading closely against a vividly evoked historical backdrop. He is (as "the" biographer of London) at his most vivid describing the feel of 16th-century metropolitan life. He offers, for example, a sensuous description of what watching a play by Shakespeare must have been like, the theatre "jammed at least three times as full as any modern place of entertainment, smelling of rank human odours, of bad breath and of sweat, of cheap food and drink". (These last two, at least, would be welcome at the lovingly reconstructed Globe theatre on the South Bank.)

Despite declaring piously that he will avoid "the comfortable position of the armchair psychologist", Ackroyd does his fair share of psychologising - plugging gaps in the record by speculating, for example, that young Will was "in certain respects an odd child. He was precocious, too, and observant; but he was one who stood apart." Says who? In general, however, Ackroyd is shrewd and cautious. One of his favourite tactics when confronted with the wilder surmises of Shakespearean scholarship is to invoke a Johnsonian "common sense suggests" formula. The picture, as he likes to say, "emerges": it is not projected.

Ackroyd's guiding concept is that Shakespeare was, above all, "practical". He approached the world's problems, and those of his art, in a pragmatic, not dogmatic, spirit. He had good reason for this. Inflexible religious belief, of any kind, could lead to the stake. The Elizabethan world and its theatre were in a condition of continuous and bewildering flux. Pragmatism accompanied a philo-sophy of life and art that was, as Ackroyd asserts, "ambiguous". Shakespeare was everything and nothing: a countryman and a Londoner; heterosexual and homosexual; a royalist, but also the author of the (dangerously) regicidal Richard II. Even if there were facts to hand, he would remain inscrutable. And, as Ackroyd admirably re-creates him, for ever fascinating.

John Sutherland's Inside Bleak House: a guide for the modern Dickensian is published this month by Duckworth

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