William Shakespeare: A Popular Life

This … book … was originally released in 2001, and all but states it is meant to ride the doublet-tails of “the success of the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love“. I was puzzled by this for a moment – I don’t usually expect a book received through Netgalley to be fifteen years old. But hey – a Shakespeare biography! How can that be bad?

This. This is how that can be bad.

From the introduction: My aim has been to give Shakespeare a life, not only as a historical figure who can be brought to life, but the dimension of one who is still living. To do this I have dropped the usual tentative approach of scholars (the “might’s”, the “could have’s” and “may have’s”).

That’s a nice idea, to a reader who loves Shakespeare. To a reader who loves Shakespeare and who has read biographies, looking for something new or fresh, it’s horrendous. Because the problem with Shakespeare from that point of view is that perhaps every single aspect of his life, birth to death and everything in between, involves “‘might’s’, the ‘could have’s’ and ‘may have’s'”. That’s why there’s an authorship question in some people’s minds: we just don’t know much about the man at all.

The above quote worried me, a little. What worried me more was the author’s statement that he would be using the plays and sonnets to extrapolate fact. I didn’t make it far into the book, but even in the few pages I read there were at least a couple of statements – not presented as supposition, but absolute fact – which gave me actual pain:

– “Denied, or perhaps ultimately uninterested in, confession to a priest, he came over the years to turn his plays into secret and disguised confessionals, in which he could play both confessor and penitent.”

– “Anne [Hathaway] was nurtured and protected by both Shakespeare and his mother as few women were in Elizabethan times.” Which as far as I know is completely unsupported by anything known about the Shakespeare menage.

I am baffled about why this foundationless bubble of guesses and fantasy is presented as a biography. If it had a plot, this would be a novel; plotless, it’s a tissue of lies.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

ETA: The Goodreads quote of the day is entirely relevant to this book.

“There is a technical term for someone who confuses the opinions of a character in a book with those of the author. That term is idiot.”
― S.M. Stirling

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