BOOKS: The King of Infinite Space ; Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd CHATTO & WINDUS Pounds 25 (546Pp) Pounds 22.50 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
MacCabe, Colin, The Independent (London, England)
You will not find a better book on Shakespeare. Peter Ackroyd, one of the wonders of the scholarly world, has done it again. Our greatest biographer has once more put the academics to shame. You might have thought it impossible to write a book on Shakespeare that did more than repeat what we already knew. Ackroyd does not have any rabbits to produce from the hat " Shakespeare does not turn out to be a woman or an Arab " but this is the first really plausible account that situates our greatest writer in his time and place.
Were this the product of a lifetime of scholarship one would still be astonished by the reach of its historical knowledge and the depth of its literary understanding. But Ackroyd has not spent his life as a Shakespearean scholar, this biography is one of a series that started just over 20 years ago with a magnificent life of T S Eliot and which includes the best accounts of Charles Dickens, Thomas More and William Blake.
If that were not enough, Ackroyd is also a major novelist and in his youth produced memorable lyric poetry. The paradox may not, however, be so great. The fruits of Shakespearean scholarship are abundant; our knowledge of the Elizabethan theatre and Tudor social history is now very extensive; perhaps it needed someone from outside this world of specialists to make it live.
The exact secret of how Ackroyd manages to inhale vast quantities ofscholarship, inhabit the writing of another until it becomes his own and then to inscribe a measured account in what cannot, to judge from the bibliography, be much over two years will no doubt remain a mystery.
But if the process perplexes, the product illuminates. Ackroyd's Shakespeare is a man of two places: his native Stratford, birthplace and grave, where he takes his place among the burghers; and his adopted London, where he finds in the new theatre a living which becomes a fortune, and a form which becomes a national treasure. Ackroyd has written nothing finer than the opening 100 pages, where 16th-century Stratford is summoned into life. All the resources of his knowledge and his saturation in Shakespeare's language combine to make it clear how much Shakespeare's vocabulary and imagination were formed in the world of a Renaissance town, where new forms of exchange and new forms of classical learning lived side by side.
Ackroyd is superb at making the connections which show how small a society Tudor England was " not least in the astonishing web that he traces, which links Shakespeare time and time again to the 'recusants' who, at risk to their life and living, continued to practise the Catholic faith. Ackroyd wisely refuses to commit to the question of whether Shakespeare was a Catholic; he takes a traditional line that Shakespeare had no beliefs whatever. However, this book provides the most telling conspectus of scholarship which places Shakespeare firmly in a social world whose primary allegiance was to the Bishop of Rome.
The major thrust of the book, however, is the London theatre. From his first collection of poems, London Lickpenny, Ackroyd has made the study of London his passion. …