February 2006

Pauls Toutonghi

features

A Q&A with Peter Ackroyd

Nobody has ever said: The thing about poor William Shakespeare is this: he suffers from a lack of press.

By 2006 -- the four hundredth anniversary, roughly, of his greatest plays -- Shakespeare has been the subject of countless films, books, novels, essays, poems, plays, and rumors. He is ubiquitous.

But in his new work, Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd proves one important point: A good biographer can make the ubiquitous seem rare, can make the well-known fact seem like the freshly-unearthed discovery.

Ackroyd’s book is entertaining and nimble. It never gets swallowed by any single aspect of Shakespeare’s life. It doesn’t fall into any of the pitfalls that consume other, recent offerings on the poet and playwright from Stratford.

The childhood? Reconstructed convincingly, utilizing a variety of documentary sources and a vivid re-imagining of the look of the rural English countryside. Ackroyd takes small details (such as plant names in local dialect) and finds the presence of these details in Shakespeare’s plays.

The life in London? Deftly described -- again with a fair amount of conjecture. Elizabethan England rises strikingly from the pages of this book. The senses of late-sixteenth, early-seventeenth century London -- the smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of it -- are present.

The plays, themselves? This is where Ackroyd is at his strongest. After graduating from Cambridge in 1971, he came to Yale as a Mellon Fellow. The analytical sophistication of this biography is among its strongest features. It’s worth the price of the book for the analyses of the plays.

And the book moves quickly. Perhaps too quickly. The chapters do rush into each other somewhat, pulling the reader from moment to moment in Shakespeare’s life; Ackroyd seems to have worried a great deal about making the narrative move at a rapid pace.

I asked Peter Ackroyd about this -- and a few other things -- in an e-mail correspondence over the New Year. He currently lives in London, where he is at work on a predictably varying array of new projects.

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One of the strengths of the biography is the way that you find seemingly commonplace lines in Shakespeare and show how these lines relate to elements of Shakespeare's life -- especially his childhood in Stratford. Can you talk about the process of finding these lines?

Most of them were given to me by other scholars and critics who had noticed them in the past. It is always important to read as many critical books on the subject as you can.

Do you feel that critics of Shakespeare are often needlessly deterministic in their readings of the plays?

Yes. It is quite probable that the plays have no 'meaning' at all in the accepted sense.

You've written over ten novels and now -- seven biographies. This does not take into account a number of volumes of nonfiction, criticism, and poetry. Setting aside the question of -- how do you manage to be so prolific -- could you compare the writing of a novel to the writing of a biography? Which do you enjoy more?

I don't think of myself as being prolific. By the standard of nineteenth century writers, such as Carlyle and Dickens, I am not prolific at all. Quite the opposite. The process of writing a novel and a biography is much the same -- in the act of writing.

Of course the act or art of preparation is quite different.

The pacing of your biography is quite lively. It is divided, in fact, into 90 chapters. Was this a conscious choice you made, from the outset, or did the material lend itself to this kind of approach?

The material formed itself like that. It was almost accidental. I really have very little conscious influence on the shape of the narratives I write. They find their own
themes and significances.