It’s said we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life, yet new biographies are published every year. Is this because new facts are always being discovered? Sadly not, although every now and then an extra piece is added to the jigsaw – but normally this is a bit of background rather than the main picture.
In a recent interview, the distinguished scholar James Shapiro listed his five favourite Shakespeare biographies, a genre that he has contributed to himself. Shapiro’s list of suggestions is interesting as he has chosen books which he has found useful sources for biography rather than telling the story chronologically.
During my work at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive I must have been asked hundreds of times to recommend a book about Shakespeare’s life. There’s no simple answer of course. Almost every book written on the subject will be someone’s favourite. Some could almost be classed as fiction, some concentrate on the facts: there is something for everybody here.
The area that really divides opinion is the period of Shakespeare’s life known as the “lost years”, 1585 to 1592, between the baptism of his twins Hamnet and Judith in Stratford and the first record of him as a player and writer in London, in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. When I’m looking at a biography I always check this bit first. Some authors let their imaginations run riot, others list every possibility, some express a favourite, others don’t. I agree with Shapiro that Peter Holland’s essay in the Dictionary of National Biography is admirable (and freely available online to public library users), and Holland wastes no time on the debate: “Biographers have created fanciful narratives for this period; none have any foundation”, before going on to mention just a couple of the theories.
I was surprised though that Shapiro is so dismissive of what I regard as the best biography of Shakespeare, Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: a Documentary Life. He describes it as “a very dry book – I suppose it’s kind of useful if you’re studying for an exam”, but I consult my dog-eared copy constantly, because I admire Schoenbaum’s reasonable, well-informed voice.
Originally published as a lavish hardback, with all the documents relating to Shakespeare’s life reproduced at more or less full size, it was later published in paperback as A Compact Documentary Life, and is still in print. In his section on the lost years he considers all the options, from deer-poacher, butcher’s apprentice, schoolmaster, lawyer’s clerk, private tutor and player, before subtly suggesting that his vote goes for the idea that Shakespeare joined the acting company the Queen’s Men when they played at Stratford in 1587.
Whatever the details, Shakespeare was blown from the country town of his birth to the big city, like Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, by
Such wind as scatters young men through the world
To seek their fortunes farther than at home,
Where small experience grows
I checked out the biographies in the Shakespeare Bookshop, a wonderful treasure trove of books by and about Shakespeare right opposite Shakespeare’s Birthplace. If you want to buy a book but don’t know what to choose I’d recommend them as they have an excellent range and helpful, knowledgeable staff. Their most popular biography at the moment is Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, and it is a great basic introduction to the subject written in the authors’s wonderfully readable style. At the other end of the scale, I also like David Bevington’s recent discussion of the history of the books that have been written on the life, Shakespeare and Biography, in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series.
If you want to read more about this subject, and you happen to be passing through Stratford-upon-Avon, all the books mentioned are available at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, mostly in the Reading Room where they can be taken off the shelf to read.