Shakespeare: A Life

By Park Honan

published by Oxford University Press

479 pages, 1999

Buy it online





Shakespeare Unplugged

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley


Yes, Shakespeare's in love and we're in love with Shakespeare. Even more than usual just now, the world can't seem to shake Shakespeare. With the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, the current A Midsummer Night's Dream, and countless other movies with Shakespearean themes, we just can't seem to get enough of the old Bard. Now an exceptional new book, Shakespeare: A Life, shows us facets of the poet that we've never seen before.

Questions are answered in this exhaustive study of the man. Objectively, Honan describes the life and times of arguably the most important writer the world has ever known. What was he like as a person?

William's confidence cannot be disassociated from the emotional support he must have found at home. As a man he would lack a quirky egoism, as seems clear from his relatively peaceful career in the theater, a hive of tension... He has a calm, fine control of emotional materials.

Who were his friends? How did his relationship progress with Anne Hathaway?

By November, the Shakespeares certainly knew of their son William's relationship with Agnes or Anne Hathaway, the eldest daughter in a family of the earl's copyhold tenants. Born in 1555 or 1556, if the legend on her grave-slab is accurate, Anne at 26 or 27 was pregnant with William's child. It is a modern myth that she was 'on the shelf', or older than many women of the Tudor yeomanry at marriage, but William was legally a minor. He probably felt obligated to seek his father's consent to marry, and he may have tried to do so before November.

What was a theater life like back then? How did he die?

A sufferer of typhoid fever knows incessant headache, lassitude, and sleeplessness, then terrible thirst and discomfort. The features begin to shrivel... It is, on a whole, likely that Shakespeare was so well nursed his miseries lasted little longer than they might have done. But he died on 23 April, and two days later his body was taken into Holy Trinity Chancel.

These questions and many more are answered by Honan, a Emeritus Professor at the School of English at the University of Leeds. He uses a wealth of fresh information that makes us see Shakespeare in a new light.

For instance, we have new evidence about Shakespeare's friendship with a woman named Jennet. Four years younger that Shakespeare, Jennet married John Davenant, a London wine importer. After six of her children died in London, Jennet went to Oxford with her husband to run a wine tavern, where Shakespeare habitually stayed over. We learn that the man who sold him his house was poisoned and killed by his son. We learn his mother Mary was quick-minded and managerial. We learn his daughters grew up to be independent-minded women. We learn he lived in the north of England. We learn and learn: facts are rich throughout the thick biography, plenty to provide a fascinating read, yet not too much for it to bog down and become a tedious text book.

The author studies Shakespeare's works as well. We learn the story behind the words. Whether it be Hamlet, a sonnet, or a comedy, Honan examines them with a sharp and keen eye, gleaning information from the writings so that we may understand the writer better.

Shakespeare: A Life casts a new light on the complexity and fascination of William Shakespeare's life and his extraordinary development as an artist. Honan is an artist as well, painting a fully developed color portrait of a man we thought we knew. If one wasn't in love with Shakespeare and his life before reading this book, they will be afterwards. | May 1999


Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye.