Shakespeare: the biography, by Peter Ackroyd

The king of infinite space
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The Independent Culture

Were this the product of a lifetime of scholarship one would still be astonished by the reach of its historical knowledge and the depth of its literary understanding. But Ackroyd has not spent his life as a Shakespearean scholar, this biography is one of a series that started just over 20 years ago with a magnificent life of T S Eliot and which includes the best accounts of Charles Dickens, Thomas More and William Blake.

If that were not enough, Ackroyd is also a major novelist and in his youth produced memorable lyric poetry. The paradox may not, however, be so great. The fruits of Shakespearean scholarship are abundant; our knowledge of the Elizabethan theatre and Tudor social history is now very extensive; perhaps it needed someone from outside this world of specialists to make it live.

The exact secret of how Ackroyd manages to inhale vast quantities ofscholarship, inhabit the writing of another until it becomes his own and then to inscribe a measured account in what cannot, to judge from the bibliography, be much over two years will no doubt remain a mystery.

But if the process perplexes, the product illuminates. Ackroyd's Shakespeare is a man of two places: his native Stratford, birthplace and grave, where he takes his place among the burghers; and his adopted London, where he finds in the new theatre a living which becomes a fortune, and a form which becomes a national treasure. Ackroyd has written nothing finer than the opening 100 pages, where 16th-century Stratford is summoned into life. All the resources of his knowledge and his saturation in Shakespeare's language combine to make it clear how much Shakespeare's vocabulary and imagination were formed in the world of a Renaissance town, where new forms of exchange and new forms of classical learning lived side by side.

Ackroyd is superb at making the connections which show how small a society Tudor England was - not least in the astonishing web that he traces, which links Shakespeare time and time again to the "recusants" who, at risk to their life and living, continued to practise the Catholic faith. Ackroyd wisely refuses to commit to the question of whether Shakespeare was a Catholic; he takes a traditional line that Shakespeare had no beliefs whatever. However, this book provides the most telling conspectus of scholarship which places Shakespeare firmly in a social world whose primary allegiance was to the Bishop of Rome.

The major thrust of the book, however, is the London theatre. From his first collection of poems, London Lickpenny, Ackroyd has made the study of London his passion. His major perspective on Shakespeare is the history of London plays and players in the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign and the first of James's. This perspective will dominate accounts of Shakespeare for the foreseeable future. Shakespeare's unique trajectory as company player, playwright and theatre owner is the thread on which Ackroyd weaves his story, the thread that links an ambitious Stratford burgher both to the courts of Elizabeth and James, and to the brothels of Southwark.

Ackroyd has genuinely set a new standard for accounts of Shakespeare's life but - thankfully for us lesser mortals - there are some minor cavils. The book could have done with a final edit to avoid repetitions. There are even some, though very few, errors: Henry V's "wooden O" does not refer to the Curtain, but to the Globe. Ackroyd's past work allows only one concession to human frailty: a sort of watery mysticism with an Anglo-Saxon tinge. Luckily, that mysticism is on the back burner in this book.

There are a few formal bows to the "English imagination", but Ackroyd's Shakespeare is not an Anglo-Saxon Rosicrucian but a man firmly placed in the material world of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The one serious criticism one might make of this book is its absolute refusal to engage with the deep psychological structures of Shakespeare's writing. Every local analysis is sharp and well judged but all generalisations are avoided, with the rubric that Shakespeare is invisible, a dramatic poet whose interest is entirely in the drama and whose only beliefs are those of any politic social climber.

Ackroyd is wise to avoid those psychological readings which attempt to link the sexual disgust of the Sonnets and the major tragedies to events in Shakespeare's life. However, that disgust and its resolution in the asexual daughters of the late plays sketches out a newstructure of feeling which is to dominate the European civilising process for centuries. Here, Shakespeare's old Catholic connections pale into insignificance besides a new Puritan sensibility. For all Ackroyd's deep historical insights into both Stratford town and London city, he is unwilling to admit any notion of such profound historical changes in consciousness. If Shakespeare feels sexual disgust, then it is an odd personal quirk; if there is an obsession with chaste daughters in the late plays, then that is a mere curiosity.

One is strongly tempted to agree with Ackroyd's thesis that Shakespeare's plays surprised their author; their themes and emphases develop in the writing, and are not separable from it. This does not mean, however, that Shakespeare's imagination was not deeply historical - that he lived the contradictions between town and country, between oral and literate culture, between feudalism and capitalism more deeply than any of his contemporaries. But if this is a disagreement with Ackroyd, it is one that acknowledges this Shakespeare as a major work - one that will be read with profit by both general reader and specialist scholar.

Colin MacCabe is professor of English at Exeter University