BOOKS AND ARTS
08 October 2005, Review by Oliver Bernard
Faith only in the drama
Shakespeare: the biographyPeter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, £25
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 Tel 01420 592974
My first acquaintance with Shakespeare began more than 70 years ago, reading The Merchant of Venice with my sister and the elder of my two brothers at a table with my father. I was eight or nine. A year or so later, at the best-liked of the five or six boarding schools I attended, a German-Jewish school in Kent which had removed itself from south Germany in 1933, the English teacher was a tall, fair-haired, bearded, kindly person called Norman Wormleighton. He got his whole class of ten-year-olds reading King Lear , and gratified me enormously by letting me read the Fool with him as Lear on the heath and in the hovel.
After that, having some idea of what “Shakespeare” meant, but ignoring the then bristling arguments about Bacon, I was given, by a friend of my mother’s, a homosexual young man, a little red Temple edition of the Sonnets which I read by myself, overwhelmed and sometimes in tears. I was 13.
I accepted until not long ago that a Shakespeare biography was impossible. Even quite recently I enjoyed Robert Nye’s hundred chapters on The Late Mr Shakespeare – a sort of hunting-down of the hundred or so rumours about its subject, put into the mouth of one Pickleherring, a (literally) dirty old man who used to be a boy actor and now lives in the garret of a Jacobean brothel. I remember, too, Nye’s The Complete Works of Mr Shakespeare , with his “elucidation” of the second-best bed problem. But in the waking, weekday world, Peter Ackroyd’s explanation, if less entertaining, is really more satisfying: the second-best bed was the marital one; the best bed was kept for visitors.
Which brings me to the subject of research. I don’t know whether Ackroyd has an enthusiastic and reliable team working for him, or whether he himself did the mountainous research required by the Biography . Either way, he must be lengthily applauded for it. He has put together the best possible description of what a boy would have learnt at
There remains Shakespeare’s work, his friends, and the family, or families. His own extended family; the Catholic families of England; patrons, professional friends and allies; colleagues in the theatre and in business; and the work, work, work – on stage and off – occasionally interrupted by almost annual recurrences of the plague, and the vagaries of politics and land values.
It was news to me, though not to scholars, that theatres were also bear-baiting venues, and that prominent theatre owners also owned brothels. Much less surprising, since I spent several years as a drama teacher, was that the texts of the plays – unlike those of Ben Jonson – were partly the product of interaction between actors and dramatist, especially as concerned stage business. It would be quite proper to describe the process as play-making as much as play-writing.
In collaboration, in the occasional theft of phrases or situation, in the use of stage machinery, Ackroyd makes it clear that, as a dramatist, Shakespeare was concerned above all with effect, unhindered by all other considerations, avoiding only prosecution by the authorities. The tragedies, says Ackroyd, are “worlds with no god”. Whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic is a question about which he speculates – fruitfully, I think. His conclusion may not be universally welcome, yet I find it perfectly trustworthy, free from any trace of tendentiousness. “It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, ‘a church papist’; he outwardly conformed … but secretly remained a Catholic.” Against the new Protestantism, “He made no protest and incurred no fine … Despite his manifold Catholic connections Shakespeare professed no particular faith. … Just as he was a man without opinions, so he was a man without beliefs. He subdued his nature to whatever in the drama confronted him. He was, in that sense, above faith.” Anyone who finds the word “above” in that last sentence impossible to accept may like to consider the possibility of “below”. What matters is the difference of level, or plane.
From Ackroyd’s comments about Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and, above all, about the Sonnets, it is very clear to me that he understands what poetry is. I strongly suspect that there are extant Ackroyd poems, published or not. Most interesting I find his suggestion that the Sonnets, in a time when sonneteering was fashionable, are written somewhat against the fashion, with a sharp competitiveness about them; that they are no more autobiographical, necessarily, than the plays; and that “if a consummate actor wrote poetry, this is what it would be like”.
Shakespeare: the biography not only sends me back in haste to Shakespeare’s work, it will enhance all further readings, including those I at present share with the local reading-Shakespeare-aloud group. And if there seems no end to the writing of books about Shakespeare, still this one has well earned the definite article of its title.