With Shakespeare Michael Wood has provided a wide-ranging summary of contemporary historical research regarding the most celebrated author in the English language. Beginning with an analysis of the roiling religious and political conflicts in Shakespeares boyhood England, Wood observes that, if "great writers are made by their times, then to be born in 1564 was to be born in very interesting times indeed." For Wood, the tensions of the times generated the modern era and formed Shakespeare, one of the first modern men.
In addition to the investigation of the political context for Shakespeares work, Wood also explores Shakespeares erotic life and the genesis of his theater career. Readers learn early on that Shakespeares marriage to Anne Hathaway was likely a "shotgun wedding" due to her impending pregnancy. From there, Wood speculates about the "lost years" of Shakespeares life: the ten year period for which virtually no documentary evidence is extant and, unfortunately, the period that marked Shakespeares departure from Avon and entry into London theatrical circles. Later, in the requisite investigation of the identity of the "Dark Lady" of the Sonnets, Wood revitalizes a theory dismissed by some scholars: that the woman was none other than Emilia Lanier, mistress of Shakespeares patron.
A companion to the PBS documentary series, the book is not comprehensive of Shakespeare studies--probably no book could be. Beyond some early investigations of Shakespeares Midlands dialect and some short examinations of the plays and poems, Wood provides far less close reading of the poetry and the plays than one would expect. But the book does provide a broad historical understanding of Shakespeares world and a flavor for his daily life. The volume is also complemented by lavish illustrations, detailed maps, and period artwork. --Patrick OKelley
From Publishers Weekly
The companion volume to Wood's four-part PBS documentary, to air in early 2004, this life of Shakespeare has all the vividness of a good television profile, backed up with a keen and contentious historical perspective on his turbulent era. Like many of the Bard's biographers who want to surpass the few official documents and brief contemporary testaments that form the official record, Wood's lively portrait is half hypothesis and half argument, embellished with speculative digressions. Addressing both Shakespeare's artistic universality and his religious beliefs, Wood considers him a Catholic with a capital "c" as well as a small one. Wood doesn't have new evidence to support this necessarily, but he does delve into the Warwickshire region's history as a flashpoint of crypto-Catholicism, which may have touched Shakespeare's family and their neighbors and distant relatives. As an old medieval hand, Wood (In Search of the Dark Ages) also positions Shakespeare on the cusp of the modern age, but with a firm background in the old traditions. He's also superb at bringing together the Warwickshire idiom and rural nomenclature that run through the plays. Wood brings 16th-century London to raucous life-even if his view of the Elizabethan era concentrates on its grim politics at the cost of its cultural renaissance. Throughout, Shakespeare is treated as a living person inhabiting his time (although sometimes Wood draws parallels too close, such as between the Diggers' revolt and Coriolanus). The absence of source notes will frustrate serious readers, but the copious color illustrations and lively readability will satisfy others until the TV documentary airs.
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