When I first spotted Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography in one of my libraries here in Madrid (Biblioteca Pedro Salinas), I picked it up and began to read, falling instantly into the witty prose and the intrigue that surrounds the shrouded and scant details of Shakespeare’s life. I quickly felt guilty for reading in English while in Spain, however, and left the biography for months. However, now that I am only in Spain one more month, I am permitting myself the indulgence of reading one perspective on a fascinating life of one of the most renowned Englishmen of all time. And yes, I’m reading it in English.

The first part of Peter Ackroyd’s biography investigates the first era of Shakespeare’s life in which he is born and lives in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. Given how truly scarce primary evidence about Shakespeare’s life is, any biography of the playwright must necessarily incorporate much background detail and a fair amount of speculation, although much of it is based on as much research and as many “hard facts” as possible. Ackroyd limns the living and familial conditions of Shakespeare’s primogenitors and essentially disabuses the layman of the myth of Shakespeare’s extremely humble origins, noting the prominent positions of both the distaff and paternal sides of Shakespeare’s heritage. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was born to a family that owned a significant amount of property in the Warwick area, for example, and Shakespeare’s father held many notable governmental positions in the local government, including alderman (similar to a current American city councilor). John Shakespeare also owned a substantial amount of expensive properties, and the idea that Shakespeare was born to nothing is simply a canard told to perpetuate the idea of his genius by hyperbolizing the gap between where he supposedly started and life and where he ended up. Regardless of where he started, in my opinion, ending as the world’s greatest playwright and having composed a dramaturgical oeuvre replete with some of the most beautiful language and the most riveting philosophy is not a bad place to finish one’s life.

Shakespeare is most commonly assumed to have been born on the 23rd of April, 1564. He was certainly christened on the 26th of April, and given that most infants were christened three days after their birth, as well as the fact that the 23rd of April is St. George’s Day (the patron saint of England) and the day of Shakespeare’s death, it is a compelling date on which to place the assumed birth of the Bard.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and polemical parts of Shakespeare’s early life is the numerous connections that his family had to recusant Catholics. Born in 1564, Shakespeare was born and first lived under Queen Elizabeth I, a woman who was nominally Protestant and whose religious policies were somewhat concessive towards believers of the Old Faith but solidified as more vehemently anti-Catholic throughout the duration of her reign. Many people in Warwickshire, however, were known recusants and were frequently imprisoned, fined, and even killed for their refusal to submit to the official Protestantism of the country. Shakespeare’s own father was fined multiple times for failing to appear in Sunday Mass, and a curious paper was found in John Shakespeare’s house affirming his status as a staunch Catholic intent never on ceding his beliefs to the New Faith. Despite clues like this, however, there is also contradictory evidence pointing to the Protestantism of the family, such as John Shakespeare’s lime-washing of the old Catholic frescoes in the local church to comply with Protestant standards, for example. Though we cannot say with certainty whether Shakespeare was Catholic, Anglican, atheist or otherwise, we can at least know that the environment of his infancy was one steeped in Catholics during a time of their religious illegitimacy, including Shakespeare’s likely school teacher John Cottam and many other people who lived and worked closely with the Bard in his formative years.

Many scholars have tried to take stabs in the dark about Shakespeare’s early profession(s) and avocations from the allusions in his plays. His work apparently evinces intricate, involved knowledge of various professional and avocational fields, including property law, maritime pursuits, and the flora of the Warwickshire area. From these clues, scholars have attempted to reconstruct a past that left a very thin trail of concrete evidence. What is certainly clear are both Shakespeare’s amazing propensity to absorb language from many different environments (even ones in which he likely didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time) and his familiarity with leather and gloving terms, given that his father worked as a glover for awhile and likely used his son as an apprentice.

Towards the end of his time in Stratford and before his stint in London where he would forge a career and make an eternal name for himself, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. In many ways, this marriage was odd, including the fact that Anne was eight years Shakespeare’s senior, a gap whose disparity would be more exaggerated in Elizabethan times than it is nowadays given the erstwhile life expectancy during the Renaissance that was almost half of what it is today. Also interesting is that Shakespeare married at age 18 and therefore required his father’s permission to marry. Lastly, Shakespeare’s first daughter, Susanna, was born only six months after the marriage, meaning Shakespeare and his wife had certainly copulated before the nuptial vows and did not arrive at the wedding in a purely “chaste” condition. Yes, the greatest writer of English literature had a shotgun wedding.

Ackroyd’s recounting of Shakespeare’s life in Stratford-upon-Avon ends with his marriage to Anne Hathaway. Next await the riveting chapters of Shakespeare’s success in the early modern English theater in London.

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King Lear, Act 1

February 5, 2011

Considered by many scholars and laypeople alike as Shakespeare’s best tragedy, King Lear is a powerful play that is a retelling of a story considered historical in England of a king who divides his lands between his three daughters. I have read the play before and found it beautiful, although it still always pales in comparison with Hamlet to me, but perhaps that is a function more of my personal position and feelings in life than a reflection of Shakespeare’s art and craft.

The first act of King Lear begins with a conversation between the Earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester, and Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son. The two earls are discussing the division of King Lear’s kingdom between the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, married to Goneril and Regan, respectively, the eldest two daughters of King Lear. The conversation eventually turns to Edmund, who Gloucester admits was born illegitimately although conceived with ardor. King Lear abruptly enters the scene, declaring that he has divided his kingdom into three. Nevertheless, he asks his three daughters to make bombastic professions of their love to him in order to secure their territorial portions. Goneril and Regan comply, and King Lear gives them each a third of his kingdom. Cordelia, however, says that her love is in her actions and not her words. She points out the hyperbole of her sisters’ speeches and refuses to try to outdo them, incurring Lear’s wrath. He decides to give her none of his kingdom, and her predetermined third of the kingdom is split between Goneril and Regan. Kent, an outspoken advisor to the king, tells him of the folly of his action, but Lear will hear no one oppose him and therefore banishes Kent from England. The two suitors that had been courting Cordelia, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, next decide who will marry Cordelia. Burgundy does not desire her if she doesn’t come with a third of the kingdom, so France, who loves Cordelia for the woman she is, marries her and takes her to his kingdom.

Meanwhile Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, has forged a letter in the handwriting of his legitimate brother, Edgar, that indicates that Edgar believes that Gloucester’s lands should be divided between the two sons. Edmund makes sure that Gloucester reads the letter, and Gloucester is incensed and afraid of the supposed machinations of his eldest son, likely because he has just seen King Lear deposed by similar longings of the younger generation. Edmund warns Edgar that Gloucester is angry with him, and Edgar flees the house on the advice of Edmund, who notes that his plots are succeeding perfectly because of the credulity of his family members.

Lear, after abdicating the throne, maintains a bevy of one hundred knights and spends alternating months at the estates of his eldest two daughters. His first tenure is with Goneril, though she grows tired of Lear, his loud fool, and the revelries of his one hundred attendant knights. Goneril tells Lear of these offenses, and he is gravely offended. He disowns her, curses her womb not to be fecund, and decides to go spend time with Regan, his second daughter. Throughout all of the scenes with Lear, Lear’s witty and brilliant fool mocks him for having rent his kingdom and banished his best daughter.

Hamlet, Act 1

January 13, 2011

Hamlet is, both by popular opinion and my own personal one, Shakespeare’s best play. For a reason largely inexplicable to me, Hamlet is fascinating, haunting, and magical in a way that other plays are not. It is with a sense of awe and appreciation, therefore, that I indulge in reading The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark yet again.

The first act of Hamlet begins as two sentinels guarding the Danish palace hear, yet again, a noise that startles them. The fright turns out to be the specter of the previous king of Denmark, Hamlet, who is believed to have been bitten by a snake and killed as a result of the poisoning. Though the poltergeist has appeared for three nights in a row, it refuses to speak and disappears as quickly as it arrives, bewildering its witnesses. The sentinels decide to inform Prince Hamlet, the late king’s son, about the apparition.

Meanwhile, Prince Hamlet is brooding over his father’s death, as the Prince believed his father to be a just and admirable king. Prince Hamlet is particularly perturbed by the rapidity with which his mother, Queen Gertrude, remarried. In a mere month after the king’s death, Gertrude married Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother, and already shares a bed with him, much to the dismay of Hamlet, who finds his mother’s actions lascivious and disrespectful. Hamlet gives beautiful speeches from his very first appearance in the play, and his suicidal tendencies are made known early when he vocalizes his wish that his flesh would simply melt away or that suicide were not an unholy act.

In a new scene, Laertes, brother to Ophelia and son of Polonius, informs Ophelia not to indulge in Hamlet’s romantic requests, saying that Hamlet is but youthful and brimming with desire, all of which can expire at any moment. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, extends a similar warning to her against Hamlet. Ophelia obliges them both by acquiescing with their commands.

The scene ends when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, is beckoned away by that ghost, and is then told that the “snake bite” that killed his father was actually a malicious poisoning by Claudius. Prince Hamlet returns to his friends, informs them of the awful truth, and the three of them swear never to reveal what they learned that night.

In this act, Shakespeare sets up some fascinating plots. As a reader, we already identify with Hamlet because of the raw depth of the inner psychology to which we are granted dramatic access and view. We begin to imagine to what extent Hamlet was courting and flirting with Ophelia before the action of the play, just as we imagine what Gertrude’s relationship with the late king was like. The play begins brilliantly.