Fiction » Literary Figures

The best books on Shakespeare’s Life

recommended by James Shapiro

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606
by James Shapiro


Writing a traditional biography of Shakespeare is impossible, says Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro. But here he selects the best five books that tackle the life of the Bard.

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606
by James Shapiro

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Before we see your picks for the best Shakespeare biography, I want to ask: how did you first get interested in Shakespeare?

I hated Shakespeare in school. When I was 13 or 14 I was exposed to Shakespeare in the classroom for the first time, and I didn’t get it. We were reading Romeo and Juliet. I not only didn’t get the plays, I didn’t get the dirty bits which my classmates seemed to understand. So I had an immediate and visceral dislike for something that made me feel stupid. In fact I never took a Shakespeare course at university.

The reason why I do what I do now is because in the late 70s and early 80s I started spending a month of every summer kicking around Europe on InterRail, and I ended up spending some time in London and started to see some really extraordinary productions. Over the course of the next decade or so I came back every year – I was really hooked – to London or to the Edinburgh Festival or to Stratford and saw a play a day, and when there were matinees, two plays on those days.

And were there any particular productions or plays that blew your mind?

It was really a golden age: Peter Hall’s stuff, the theatre company Cheek By Jowl was coming into prominence, the National Theatre just had hit after hit. I would say there’s probably not a play in the canon for which a London production was not a formative experience. I was teaching Coriolanus the other day in class and I just remembered so powerfully the production Ian McKellen starred in at the National Theatre in 1981-82. And the best Hamlet I ever saw was probably from that time as well: Richard Eyre directing Jonathan Pryce at the Royal Court, for which I waited in line for three days to get a ticket.

These were incredibly powerful productions. It was like a drug. More powerful than any other drugs I might have been taking at the time! That experience of watching the plays to this day gives me a purchase on them that other scholars might not have, if they only know the plays from the classroom.

Your earliest choice is a book from 1882. Why did you decide to not pick any biographies from before that time?

When I was thinking about which books to choose I realised that talking about Shakespeare biography for a Shakespeare scholar is almost like asking an American gun aficionado which are your favourite five weapons. The analogy holds because it’s about how this Luger sits in my hand comfortably or how this AK47 can do this or that – these are books I use, they’re not just books that once had an impression on me. They’re all six to eight inches away from me in my office, each one of them.

“Talking about Shakespeare biography for a Shakespeare scholar is almost like asking an American gun aficionado which are your favourite five weapons”

I value and have enormous, enormous respect for the earlier biographies, like Malone’s aborted biography that came out in the early 19th century. But it’s kind of like a 19th-century weapon that doesn’t have eye sights – I don’t feel comfortable firing them! When you ask me about five biographies, I’m talking about ones I still use constantly.

Let’s talk about the first one, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps.

Halliwell-Phillipps was the hardest working man in the show business of Shakespeare in the 19th century. His work is marked by a certain kind of doggedness. This was a man who was tireless in his pursuit of any documents that would cast light on Shakespeare’s life. He did find a few things that other people hadn’t, but in the end he discovered very little.

And how does the book stand up now, especially for the non-scholar?

It’s not a ‘read’, it’s an outline. In other words, this, unlike my other choices, is not a book for non-experts. This is the kind of book in which a scholar who is patient enough to plough through the 700 pages will find things that will not appear in recent biographies that should have made it into a standard account of Shakespeare’s life.

Can you give an example?

Well one of the questions I’m often asked is, ‘How could Shakespeare have written the plays if his will left behind no evidence that he owned any books?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable and only slightly anachronistic question. And the answer is that Shakespeare’s will had an inventory – that is, a separate list of his possessions – which his son-in-law took to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office in London to get officially approved, in the same way all the legal matters following Shakespeare’s death were taken care of. Unfortunately this inventory is lost. But scholars writing biographies after Halliwell-Phillipps did not pick up on Halliwell-Phillipps’s discovery that, in fact, the story I’ve just told you is documented, and he was the first to document this.

So when I was researching my most recent book, I was browsing through Halliwell-Phillipps and discovered this. I mentioned it to Stanley Wells, who knows more about Shakespeare than anyone alive today, and even he did not remember this and was fascinated by the story. He’s probably following it up as we speak! So there are still facts that have already been discovered about Shakespeare that are not really circulating widely, and the best place to look for them is in Halliwell-Phillipps.

Your next choice is a work by E K Chambers called William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. That title suggests a meticulous, almost scientific approach. Is that true of the book?

Like The Outline of the Life of Shakespeare, the title bespeaks a failure to write the biography that Chambers wanted to write. In other words, these two scholars, who knew a spectacular amount about Shakespeare, realised that they still didn’t know enough to write a traditional cradle-to-grave biography. So these titles are a concession to reality. They could not write it because they did not know enough about the lost years, about Shakespeare’s personal life, and his return years. They were able to document a great deal about his professional life and about his real-estate holdings, baptism and family records. But there wasn’t enough of the kind of information that would fit a post-romantic, traditional biography.

So Chambers is a wonderful and spectacular and clear and unsurpassed source of information for anybody interested in documents about Shakespeare, and what was said about Shakespeare in his day and shortly after his death. It is really fantastic and a book I look at once or twice a week, to check facts and just to reassure myself that what I thought was true was in fact true! He was the most scrupulous of scholars and probably the most influential Shakespeare scholar to have ever lived, although he may not be a household name.

With your next choice, Shakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum, we’re jumping forward 60 years.

Schoenbaum wrote two books, only one of which I’ve included. Schoenbaum attempted a documentary life of Shakespeare, which is really putting Chambers into narrative form. It was a very dry book – I suppose it’s kind of useful if you’re studying for an exam but it doesn’t hold much appeal for me. But his great work is Shakespeare’s Lives, which is the lives of all of those who tried to write Shakespeare’s life or those who thought somebody other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It’s not a life of Shakespeare so much as the lives that others have dreamed of for Shakespeare. It tells you the extent to which the cultural assumptions that have dominated at each cultural moment have shaped the ways that people have imagined or re-imagined Shakespeare. This book is hilarious, it’s informative, it’s impeccable in its scholarship and it tells you once again that it’s impossible to write a great biography of Shakespeare.

I was reading up on this book, and it has a section called Deviations,in which Schoenbaum looks at the people who claim that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. Was this book an influence on your book, Contested Will, which addressed similar themes?

It was and it wasn’t. Schoenbaum lost his cool, as we would say in Brooklyn, and he began to rant in this section of the book. I suppose he’d simply read too many books claiming that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, but he starts to call these people ‘deviants’ and starts doing things that are embarrassing to read and that I suppose he would have retracted had he lived long enough. In fact, the second edition of this book backs up considerably. But he made mistakes, he didn’t quite have the doggedness of a Halliwell-Phillipps. Schoenbaum was one of the leading biographers of his day but he too realised that, for all the research you could do, there were still too many missing links. But it’s a sprightly book and I don’t mind if somebody loses his temper once in a while in a book – it’s not a terrible thing.

Can you give an example of where Schoenbaum really goes wrong?

There was a very sad and brilliant woman named Delia Bacon, who was the first to argue that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. But before she argued that she did some spectacular, innovative readings of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s politics. She went to Stratford-upon-Avon, and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a celebrated essay ‘Recollections of a gifted woman’ in which he describes her going to Stratford’s church and contemplating prying open Shakespeare’s grave and the like. What Schoenbaum did was take Hawthorne’s madwoman-in-the-attic portrait and institutionalise that in Shakespeare biography, so that she became seen just as this mad woman. She subsequently did die of insanity but that wasn’t affecting her scholarly years of research. Schoenbaum did a deep disservice calling her perverse and a deviant and so on. It was sexist, it was condescending, it was wrong. One of the things I tried to do in my book Contested Will was to get the record right on Delia Bacon.

Tell me a bit about your next book, The Lodger: Shakespeare in Silver Street by Charles Nicholl.

This is the Shakespeare biography, of all these ones, that I most wish I had written. I’m a huge fan of Nicholl’s writing, whether he’s writing about travels in South East Asia dealing with gunrunners and diamond merchants, or his books on Nash and Marlowe. But I think The Lodger is his best book.

The last significant documents related to Shakespeare were discovered in the early 20th century by a strange American couple named the Wallaces. These were documents relating to a legal case in which Shakespeare was involved as a mediator in the household in which he was renting lodgings, between a young man, a young woman and the woman’s family. They were called the Mountjoys, and they were connected to tire-making, which is making headdresses at court. Shakespeare got dragged into a legal battle over what was promised to the son-in-law and what was actually given, and what he heard and remembered from a half-dozen years earlier. It is a rare glimpse of Shakespeare caught up in the everyday, and what Charles Nicholl is able to do is take these court records and then go to the area in London where Shakespeare lived at this time and recreate that moment, that time, that family, that household, what Shakespeare was writing then, what was 100 yards away, what was 50 yards away, and the ways in which all these things shaped Shakespeare’s creative life at this moment.

So is the book a mixture of biography and creative, almost historical novel-style writing?

It feels like a novel, but it’s historical and factually accurate. It’s what I would call a slice of Shakespeare’s life. I keep coming back to the impossibility of writing a cradle-to-grave story of Shakespeare’s life, but for the last 15 years of my life and probably for the next 10, all I’m going to be doing is trying to do what Charles Nicholl did in The Lodger and which I did in my book 1599, which is to find an interesting period about which we know a considerable amount of Shakespeare’s life, and try to tell the story of that time. A micro-history rather than a biography.

Your final choice is a bit of a curveball. Explain your rationale here…

Sure. Peter Holland’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is now accessible online, is the best biography of Shakespeare you’ve never heard of. A book based on the entry is published by OUP in their Very Interesting People Series. If asked by anyone what biography of Shakespeare I would wholeheartedly recommend that has no fabrications, no romantic overtones, but just has the facts of the life and afterlife, it’s this one. Peter Holland is really judicious, really precise and tells the story in 38,000 words. And he writes like a dream. I should say that each one of the biographies I’ve chosen is beautifully written, and that’s one of the criteria that is important to me.

May 4, 2011

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James Shapiro

James Shapiro

James Shapiro has been teaching English literature at Columbia University for over 25 years, during which time he has written numerous books about Shakespeare and early modern English literature. In 2006, Shapiro won the Samuel Johnson Prize for his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. His most recent book, 1606: The Year of Lear, won the James Tait Black Prize.

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James Shapiro

James Shapiro

James Shapiro has been teaching English literature at Columbia University for over 25 years, during which time he has written numerous books about Shakespeare and early modern English literature. In 2006, Shapiro won the Samuel Johnson Prize for his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. His most recent book, 1606: The Year of Lear, won the James Tait Black Prize.