Shakespeare: A Life

Shakespeare: A Life

Shakespeare: A Life

Shakespeare: A Life


In the last ten years, virtually every previously known fact about Shakespeare has been modified by new research. Park Honan draws on this new information to dramatically alter our perceptions of the actor, poet, and playwright.

Here is virtually all that can be factually known or reasonably speculated about Shakespeare's life. Readers will find a vivid picture of what Shakespeare's childhood might have been like in the small English town of Stratford, which had but a dozen streets in 1560. We meet his father, John Shakespeare, the glovemaker of Henley Street, who rose to the office of High Bailiff and Justice of the Peace before he was beset by financial difficulties. There is a fascinating portrait of London and of the life of an Elizabethan actor (a neophyte Shakespeare may have had to learn as many as a hundred small parts per season). Honan casts new light on the young poet's relationships--his early courtship of Anne Hathaway, their marriage, his attitudes to women such as Jennet Davenant, Marie Mountjoy, and his own daughters--illuminating Shakespeare's needs, habits, passions, and concerns. The author shows in fresh detail that Shakespeare was well acquainted with violent crime and murder in daily life. And he also examines the world of the playing companies--the power of patronage, theatrical conditions, and personal rivalries--to reveal the relationship between the man and the writing.

Park Honan's Shakespeare casts new light on a complex and fascinating life, illuminating Shakespeare's extraordinary development into the greatest dramatist of his or any age.


Research into the Elizabethans is of such quality today that new material about Shakespeare, his town, his parents, his schooling, his friendships, or his career comes to light continually. My aim in this book is to show in an accurate narrative all that can be known of Shakespeare's life, at present, and to offer some account of his writing in relation to his life.

I have tried to supply a dispassionate, up-to-date report on the available facts, and to add new and relevant material. I write for the general public, but think that scholars will find fresh details about Shakespeare here.

This book differs from those biographies which imagine for him political roles, sexual relationships, or colourful intrigues not in the factual record. Imaginative reconstructions and elaborate psychological theories about him can be amusing; but, for me, they strain credulity. The attempt to understand his life is not new -- a start was made with Nicholas Rowe's forty-page sketch in 1709. Since then, a major effort of biographers has been to collect what is known about the playwright, to synthesize it, and in a sense to clean the bones of the 'Shakespeare documents' or to separate facts from myths and errors. That effort continues today. Our knowledge of him is refined in new editions of his plays or in searching performances of them, as well as in discoveries at Stratford's Birthplace Records Office, at the Public Record Office or county record offices, or at the great collections of Renaissance books and manuscripts at the British, Huntington, or Folger Shakespeare libraries. As data accumulates, so do myths. But what, surprisingly, emerges is that the factual truth as we piece it together is more exciting, suggestive, and tantalizing than anything so far dreamed up about him. What do the facts reveal of Shakespeare's relations with Marie Mountjoy or Jennet Davenant? Or about the murders connected with his house, and the brutal killing of a family friend? If we grant that not all of his work was miraculous, how did he come to write Hamlet? I find such questions more intriguing than . . .

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