Saturday, March 04, 2006

Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan

Alas, this is quite a boring book. Apparently it is up to date with all the latest ‘new material’ that has come to light about Shakespeare. This biography takes you through a lot of the dull, day-to-day life of Elizabethan England – buying and selling of land, the work of councils, the willing of property.

As for ‘Shakespeare’ in all of this, you merely get his shadow. The life of his contemporaries is etched out in enough detail – we get glimpses of the theatres, taverns, shops and houses. Many of the controversies of the day are illuminated. Against this canvas we must stick our blank Shakespeare. In short, we know of the forces that must have shaped him – the politics, customs and religious beliefs. This goes a good way to letting us imagine what life for Shakespeare must have been like, but doesn’t much tell us about Shakespeare himself.

There are plenty of passages in this book where the author asserts Shakespeare must have been this, or this event would have shaped his mind thus. But this can only be sheer speculation. How can we ever know the mind who created characters like Iago and Macbeth? There is scant detail on what Shakespeare was really like as a person.

All that has come down to us are a few fleeting descriptions of him as a fairly easy going guy, of an open and honest character. If you really want to know Shakespeare, the only real way is through his poetry and plays.

I think the main problem with this book is that it goes into very academic detail about what we know of Shakespeare’s life – basically his business dealings that are on the public record. Then this is contrasted against his extraordinary work as a playwright. It’s this mixture of the banal and the extraordinary that make this book a somewhat disappointing read. Who cares about the minor details of Shakespeare’s life? And such speculations on how these events in his life impacted on his work are to be taken with a grain of salt.

If you want to read a terrific book on Shakespeare, read Harold Bloom’s Invention of the Human. Bloom does things the right way around, by writing a biography of Shakespeare’s plays.

This book is for dull academics who sit in dusty libraries poring over minutiae.

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