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A podcast listener emailed me and asked for my thoughts on some of the books about Shakespeare’s history she is considering reading. Happy to oblige, but not enough time to really write a formal review, I decided to put together this extremely short book review on the three books from her list I have read so far. The fourth one, I have not yet completed but hope to do so this year.
For now, specifically to help Diana, here are some of my thoughts on these famous books about Shakespeare’s history.
1) Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt
Good: Stephen Greenblatt is a very personable writer. His books are easier to read (in my opinion) than some other Shakespeare history books, because while they deal in indepth research, it is conveyed much more as a story which makes the reading of it less cumbersome than some others on the market.
Bad: Greenblatt’s one large flaw is that he writes as if his opinions are truth, and that can be misleading for a historian who is looking to investigate the facts about Shakespeare.
Summary: I enjoyed reading Will in the World, and the research Greenblatt has done into the life of William Shakespeare is in depth. This book provides an excellent starting point when you want to explore the life of William Shakespeare. I would caution against using Will in the World as the final authority on your study of Shakespeare overall, but it would be unwise to skip his book when establishing your arsenal of education.
2) Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
Good: Jonathan Bate is a serious Shakespeare scholar whose research and text I heartily recommend. He is a source to be trusted, is careful to separate fact from opinion, and he has been a guest on our show, so I believe his own words probably do his work more justice than my write up here. You can hear him talk about Shakespeare in the episodes linked below, and I believe you will thoroughly enjoy his texts.
Bad: My only personal complaint about Bate’s approach to Shakespeare’s history in Soul of the Age (and he has written other books which do not have this hiccup, certainly check out his other publications as well), but this book sets up the reader to apply too much biographical information to the plays themselves. The plays reflect the time in which Shakespeare was living, and certainly act as time capsules for understanding the 16th century, but that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare wrote from his own experience. To the reader I caution the evaulation of any artist’s work as a reflection of the artist. Artwork does not necesarily represent the experiences of the one who created the art.
Summary: I (obviously) believe that to understand Shakespeare’s plays, you must understand the life of the man who wrote them. While I believe that connection is ultimately what Bate is trying to accomplish in this text (And does present excellent information, particularly about the Bard’s childhood), though I would caution the reader to be careful not to assume that we can conclude anything definitive about Shakespeare’s personal life form what happens to characters he created in his plays, despite the historical realities we can find presented there. Intentional Fallacy is still real, even if I don’t believe Shakespeare’s plays belong in the English Department.
3) How the Classics Made Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
Good: This book is absolutely brilliant. Hugely important to the relationship between Greek and Roman theater to what Shakespeare was helping to produce in Renaissance England, this book helps you understand the influence of the people who came before, indeed the writers and playwrights who were Shakespeare’s Shakespeare–the people he would have revered or tried to emulate in his own profession before “be like Shakespeare” was an option.
Bad: Nothing bad about the book itself, unless you want to count that people love to put Shakespeare history into a box and say “Shakespeare was Shakespeare because of x” and in this case, I fear the overall response will be that the x will be assigned as Greek and Roman influence. Just like any human being, Shakespeare was not influenced by any one item, and I hope the focus here doesn’t lead readers to avoid exploring other influences as well. This criticism is more of the general readership than anything of Bate’s. But since you asked, that’s my opinion.
Summary: Worth the read. He makes an often overlooked examination of Shakespeare’s work to present highly intelligent information. Might be a bit “meaty” to get through, especially compared to something like Greenblatt’s book. Would not recommend this one for a beginner, but for the established Shakespeare scholar, this book belongs on your bookshelf and will have you intrigued the whole way through.
4) Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd.
I have not read this one yet, with full intentions to do so this year. After a brief once over, I am impressed with its focus on Stratford Upon Avon and the specific, localized history in that area as it relates to Shakespeare and I LOVE that he connects those realties to things we see show up in Shakespeare’s plays. I am certain I am going to enjoy this one.
Final Note from Cassidy:
There are many scholars of all stripes exploring the history of William Shakespeare, and even if you are reading Shakespeare’s own plays, I encourage you not to ever use only one source as the full basis of your understanding about Shakespeare (or anything, really). I encourage you to complete independent research on the various items you come into contact with as you read these books and other texts/episodes/films to really consider a broad range of voices as you decide what you will believe. Exploring history is an absolute blast, and William Shakespeare’s life is well worth the trip into the past to discover something new.
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A few comments on your reviews.
First of all, forgive my bad English which is not obviously my native language.
I enjoyed Greenblatt’s book, and in my view he makes a clear distinction between his suppositions and the historical facts. For example he thinks that during the lost years Shakeaspere might have been a teacher in a noble catholic family, but he warns the reader that this is just a hypothesis.
I did not know Soul of the Age by Jonathan Bate, but I’ll add it to my wishing list and i plan to read it in the future.
I have not read it, but am a bit skeptical about Ackroyd’s book, it seems more a historical novel than a biography.
I am surpised you did not mention James Shapiro’s books.
I have read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, and I plan to read The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.
Two years ago in a Quora answer you wrote that you, like me, really liked 1599.
I am also curious about Katherine Duncan-Jones’ Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life.
I know that she paints a very bad picture of our hero, but even Greenblatt says that it is a serious biography.
For people who wants something short and fun to read there is Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson.
I hope that I have made myself understood, otherwise I could rewrite this comment in Italian:)
Hello! Thank you for reading my review 🙂 I understand your English (I think) so no worries there, and you are always welcome to write in Italian. We have several readers who are from Italy, so while I would have to translate it for myself, I do not mind doing that, and several readers would appreciate it. To your questions, I’m going to go through them as a list and offer responses.
1) I did not mention Shapiro’s books because it was not a review of Shapiro’s books. This article was (as I said at the top of the review) provided specifically for a podcast listener who asked me to review these titles. There are many, many, many books that I believe are worth reading about Shakespeare not mentioned here. Libraries full of books not mentioned here.
2) I still really like 1599. 🙂 I’m glad you liked it as well!
3) Thank you for reading my comments on Quora!
I think that responds to most things here. I’m glad you’re here! Enjoy your reading!
Grazie per essere passato! Buona lettura <3