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Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life

By Katherine Duncan-Jones
Methuen Drama £9.99
376 pages

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 year.

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 later.

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 truth.

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.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010