Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life
By Katherine Duncan-Jones
Methuen Drama £9.99
Dateline: 28th September, 2010
According to the publishers, Katherine Duncan-Jones from Somerville
College, Oxford, is Shakespeare's only female biographer. This seems
hard to credit since the Shakespeare industry has been in full flight
for centuries and dozens of books about the Bard are published every
A quick search on Amazon suggests that while other women have written
biographies of the great man, they are few and far between.
Ms Duncan-Jones seems keen to use her book as a response to the "two
great works" of Samuel Schoenbaum, Documentary Life and
Records and Images. Indeed, she says in her preface to the second
edition of this biography (the first was published in 2005) that "My
aim in Ungentle Shakespeare was to explore areas of Shakespeare's
life that Schoenbaum and others neglected, and to choose the road less
travelled for preference. While Schoenbaum sidesteps certain topics
because of a reluctance to speculate, I risked conjecture". She
certainly did and her prediction that some statements would be met with
"flat disbelief" is spot on.
With its new title, Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life is a quite
astounding mix of diligent academic research, with numerous sources
credited, and pure, at times seemingly ridiculous, invention.
Therefore, at its best this volume reveals valuable new information
about the life and times of William Shakespeare. However, at its worst
it feels like some party game in which you are told three completely
independent facts and force the link them together in the least likely
but most amusing fashion.
To compound the problem, the author makes it clear that many of her
inventions are not intended to be taken as a little harmless fun but
represent her firm beliefs. While reading this book, one eventually
comes to dread the words "I believe" for what might follow.
The problem is that eventually readers can get worn down by the semi-novelistic
approach so that even perfectly valid leaps of faith are viewed with
suspicion or, worse, disdain.
As an example, while it is possible, though by no means particularly
likely, that Shakespeare suffered from and died as a result of syphilis,
the odds seem far greater against the coincidence that his elder daughter,
Susanna would have been a victim of the same disease only a few years
That is unfortunate since Katherine Duncan-Jones has clearly put a
massive amount of effort into her research which is generally well and
readably presented. Had she written Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life
straight, rather than trying to prove the unprovable, she might have
written a far better book.
Having reached the final chapter, like me, any reader might wish for
one of two magical proofs of all that is contained herein. Either we
could travel back in time to witness the real events and see how much
of this book is correct or, even better, Shakespeare and co. might stop
turning in their graves for a few minutes and emerge to tell us the
At the same time as releasing this book, Methuen Drama have published
a new edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones,
which also retails at £9.99.
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