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Biographies of the Bard

There are quite a number of biographies of the life of Shakespeare, and even more commentaries on his life and work. I am not saying that these are the best resources for learning about Shakespeare and his work; I am merely saying that these are the ones to which I referred, even though I did not manage to finish all of them. Several of them are library copies, and several are from my personal library (Shakespeare now having a full 3' shelf here at home, although that's mostly plays and sonnets).

Books About His Works

I know I've mentioned this book off and on during discussions of the play. It's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. I don't always agree with Bloom's viewpoints (and truly, I'm far more impressed with my Edgar analysis from King Lear than I am with his "Lear = Solomon, not Lot" perspective, which I think was a stretch. My Edgar view is that Edgar = King James I, btw). That said, he makes an interesting argument over the course of the book that much of how we perceive the human being and the human condition was shaped by Shakespeare. It's not a biography, but an analysis of how Shakespeare's characters developed over time to reflect actual human beings, and how some of his language is essential to how we perceive humanity. Library copy.

Last Friday, I not only posted Shakespeare's Sonnet 106, but also included a very brief book review of one of my new source books, So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Clinton Heylin. I'm only halfway finished with the book, but I am enjoying it tremendously. One of Heylin's primary points is that the first publication of the sonnets was done without Shakespeare's permission - it was a bootleg copy. He spends a good bit of time analyzing the provenance of the sonnets, and figuring out which ones might have been widely circulated in manuscript form and which ones were kept far more private. His conclusion is that the Fair Youth poems were intended to be kept private; he also speculates on who it is that turned the poems over to be published in the first place.

I confess to having purchased No Fear Shakespeare: A Companion, which is put out by the folks at SparkNotes. It provides some easy-to-read and assimilate information about Shakespeare's life and times, then categorizes the plays: "Ten Plays That Everyone Should Know" (I covered the top 6, according to them, then picked 6 more from the canon); "Plays that show you're really well-read" (5 plays I covered are on this list of ten); "Plays with which to seriously impress your teacher" (the list on which the final of the twelve plays I chose Love's Labour's Lost appears) and "Plays for Hardcore Shakespeareans". Mind you, I didn't have this book until the beginning of the second week in June, long after I'd chosen my "curriculum". If I had, I might have chosen one from the Hardcore column! The book also has short chapters on his poetry, including the sonnets, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Basically written for teens, the book makes its points succinctly and is a good jumping-off point for discussion. Not that I always remembered to look at it. But still.

Biographies of Shakespeare

Bill Bryson made a name for himself with his travel books such as A Walk in the Woods, and then with memoir and A Short History of Nearly Everything. In 2007, he came out with Shakespeare: The World as Stage, which was part of the "Eminent Lives" series from HarperCollins. I asked for it for the holidays that year, and really enjoyed reading his casual, chatty introduction to the life of the Bard, which has a pretty solid emphasis on how very little actual information we possess about Shakespeare's life - records didn't survive, and in some instances may never have existed, etc. Decidedly an enjoyable book to read. And I like his comparison of Shakespeare to an electron: "forever there and not there."

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt is an interesting hybrid sort of book. It includes quite a bit of context about Elizabethan life and times, the known facts about Shakespeare's life, quite a bit of speculation (some of which may not be justifiable) about his actual life experience, and it also includes literary analysis of a good deal of his work. Due to time constraints (I was reading plays still, and far more interested in that, or in Eyes Like Stars, or in So Long As Men Can Breathe), I didn't give this one all that much time and energy, but I will likely borrow it again in the future. Library copy.

I purchased Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate back in May, after Sara Lewis Holmes was kind enough to point me to a Washington Post review of the book. Although I've barely begun it, I can say that I'm enjoying it a great deal. I like Bate's voice, and I like his conceit of organizing Shakespeare's life according to the seven ages of man set forth in Jaques's soliloquy in As You Like It. Eventually, when I've finished it, I'll post a book review.

One of the library books I most enjoyed is Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life by René Weis. Weis begins in Stratford-upon-Avon. Not just because he's doing a cradle-to-grave sort of biography, but also because Weis really knows Elizabethan Stratford-upon-Avon: including who lived in which house and what sorts of relationships some of them had with one another. The level of information and context that he provides is really detailed, which may mean that it's not for everyone, but I think his text is marvelous. I will likely add a copy of his book to my collection. Library copy.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 1st, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
My favorite reference book for Shakespeare is Penguin's The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard by Norrie Epstein. It covers everything from some basic biographic information (including a brief foray into the authorship question), to a look at the Elizabethan stage (boys as girls, the excavation of The Globe), all the plays (broken down by types - Histories, Comedies, Tragedies, and the Problem plays), the sonnets (and who they were written to), ending with a discussion of spin-offs (music, films, parodies, etc.), all written in an easily accessible manner with humorous footnotes and sidebars, as well as interviews with actors, directors, and other Shakespeare afficianados sprinkled throughout. It started a series of "Friendly" books for Penguin that includes a Friendly Austen and a Friendly Dickens (both also excellent reads and resources).
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
I've not seen the "Friendly" books - I'll have to look for them!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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