Still seeking Shakespeare

Trying the microscope of one spectacular year and the perspective of a lifetime

In the Turkish language, there's a special tense for describing things whose reality is in some doubt, such as a dream or an event the speaker didn't witness. It's a way of warning the listener to be on guard.

When it comes to books about the world's greatest playwright, that Turkish tense could sure come in handy.

Compared with the other two most popular subjects of biography - Jesus and Abraham Lincoln - William Shakespeare is surely the most mysterious. We can read thousands of his words, but only a tiny number that he actually said aloud or wrote privately were recorded. We know little about his parents, his wife, his children. Even his friends didn't write much about him.

Who was this guy? It's truly hard to tell. But biographers try to figure him out anyway, offering educated deductions at best and outlandish speculation at worst, leaving readers to figure out which is which. Now, an American professor and a British literary star have joined the club, trying to shed their own light on Shakespeare through the prism of his times and his work.

While they take different approaches to understanding Shakespeare, the books by James Shapiro and Peter Ackroyd share some traits. For one, their guesswork is often more aggravating than enlightening. For another, they're on the scholarly side, lacking the accessibility that turned last year's fascinating Shakespeare biography "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," by Stephen Greenblatt, into a bestseller and critical success.

Still, both authors manage to broaden our understanding of Shakespeare's world.

Of the two biographers, Shapiro takes the more unusual approach by focusing not on Shakespeare's entire life, but on just a single year - 1599, when he managed to churn out many of his best plays, including "Hamlet," "As You Like It," and "Julius Caesar."

In A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Shapiro explores the rollicking tensions that marked the beginning of the end of Queen Elizabeth I's amazing reign. Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, spends much of his time describing the largely forgotten war against the Irish rebellion and its effects on the English people, including its most prestigious dramatist.

This makes for interesting reading, to a point. But Shapiro goes too far into detail, at times turning the book into a military history. And too often, he stretches too far when he gets back to Shakespeare himself.

When Shakespeare accidentally uses the word "Ireland" instead of "England" in a play, for example, it might seem like a minor transcription error to most people. But to Shapiro, it's a sign that the playwright is preoccupied by the Irish troubles.

And when Shakespeare briefly identifies two characters by "Irish" and "Scot" instead of their names, Shapiro figures it's a sign of his prejudice.

Sometimes, a typo is just a typo.

Shapiro is at his best when he explores the high-wire act that Shakespeare performed in a society riven by fear and dread. His life was truly on the line as he struggled to create penetrating works without threatening himself by angering the powers that be. As Shapiro puts it, he was the only major English playwright of the 1590s who avoided "a major confrontation with those in power." His rivals, by contrast, had been variously tortured, imprisoned, and killed.

What did Shakespeare do about this in 1599? He confronted the issue head-on, exploring the issue of censorship in "Julius Caesar." In Shapiro's telling, Shakespeare is one brave bard.

Ackroyd's sprawling Shakespeare: The Biography is a more traditional biography, following its subject from birth to death. In the book, Ackroyd - a poet, playwright and author of 2001's widely praised "London: The Biography" - once again reveals himself to be a fine cultural historian.

He vividly describes Shakespeare's hometown and the Wild West atmosphere of London itself, "where male citizens customarily carried daggers or rapiers, apprentices had knives and females were armed with bodkins or long pins, [and] there was a constant danger of violence."

Yikes.

But while the book is sprinkled with intriguing nuggets - Shakespeare, for one thing, couldn't spell his own last name - Ackroyd writes in a dense style full of $10 words like "contumely" and "obloquy."

To make things more challenging, Ackroyd likes to quote Shakespeare's works in the original spelling in order to preserve the beauty of the language. That's a nice idea, but he doesn't help baffled readers figure out how to decipher Olde English. ("Hauoke," for example, is "havoc," and "verie howre" is "very hour.")

Despite these two new works and countless others, our view into Shakespeare's personal life remains hazy.

His seemingly strained relationship with his wife is still barely understood. (He famously left her his "second-best bed" in his will, but does that even mean what we think it does?)

His religious views remain a matter of significant debate, along with his sexuality and even his looks.

There's more to wonder about. What events in Shakespeare's childhood and young adulthood gave him such insight into the glorious highs and terrible lows of human behavior? Did he love as passionately and playfully as Romeo and Rosalind? And, ultimately, did he believe his few decades on earth were well spent?

Even with the help of the best biographers, the answers are elusive. We're left to imagine - perchance, one might say, to dream.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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