Park Honan. Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. xvi+479pp. ISBN 0 19 811792 2.

Stuart Hampton-Reeves
University of Central Lancashire

Hampton-Reeves, Stuart. "Review of Park Honan. Shakespeare: A Life." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 20.1-8 <URL:

  1. F. E. Halliday opened his biography of Shakespeare with the admission that any "new biography of Shakespeare should begin with an apology." What, after all, is there to add to the sketchy details of Shakespeare's life, bar the odd newly discovered legal document? Yet the last decade has seen a number of new biographies by writers as diverse as Anthony Holden, Eric Sams, Garry O'Conner, and Stanley Wells. Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life enters a crowded marketplace, but it does try to do something different. Honan's method focuses on and sketches in detail the physical, social, political and cultural contexts of Shakespeare's life, without ever pretending that we can peer into that life. We see Shakespeare's life in exterior. Honan insists that this is not to demean the genre of biography, but rather enhances a general understanding of Shakespeare as a man who lived in a very defined, but also highly unstable, period of history.

  2. Despite his derision for biographers who make unwarranted claims about Shakespeare's life (he is contemptuous of one biographer who imagines the young Shakespeare walking into Coventry holding his father's hand), Honan indulges in a few flights of fancy himself, particularly in his highly sentimental portrait of Mary Shakespeare's "watchful, intense love" (19), where he insists (without the slightest shred of evidence) that the young Shakespeare was "well cherished" and that "one of his greatest gifts was his understanding of feeling, and that was surely nourished by Mary" (23). More worrying is Honan's bizarre and unsupported statement that "he admired poetry, but found the theatre a quick-paced, disenchanting funfair" (111). Strange, then, that he should all but abandon poetry in his twenties, and concentrate his efforts on writing for the stage.

  3. But the exceptions prove the rule. This is an evocative biography, rather than a psychological one. We are invited to see Shakespeare as a young boy, kneeling to his father dutifully every morning, washing his face with ash and grease collected by the women of the house, cleaning his teeth with paste and marching off to school at 6 a.m. with his satchel on his back. Honan qualifies the narrative each step of the way: this is what Shakespeare, as a typical Elizabethan boy, may have done, probably would have done. Some may find such strategies questionable, but these are reasonable conjectures based on a sound knowledge of the period, rather than an authorial act of wish-fulfilment. It does bring us closer to the world that Shakespeare lived in, but it also acknowledges that there is much that we will never really know about the poet himself.

  4. Such biographical strategies call to mind Peter Ackcroyd's Life of Sir Thomas More and there are many similarities and overlaps in the ways in which both books describe late fifteenth and late sixteenth century lives. For example, both have descriptive chapters on London, both are vivid in their descriptions of their subjects' home parish, and both devote chapters to the school day, the curriculum, and the strange, unexpected social polarities charted by decorum and carnival behaviour. As with Ackroyd, Honan does not miss any opportunity to tell a story, so that we learn a lot more about the wife-beating literary pirate George Wilkins, where most biographers only give him footnote space, because such stories enliven our sense of the milieu in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Here, Honan shares with Ackroyd the fault that Shakespeare as a subject seems always to be deferred: we are always seeing him askance, out of the corner of our eyes. This is particularly true of Shakespeare, because so much documentary materials come from the public records office and so much reflects Shakespeare's direct or indirect involvement in lawsuits. As with Wilkins, this provides opportunities for lively digressions; but the final impression is that we always arrive in Shakespeare's life just as he has left the room.

  5. The book emerges when Shakespeare biography has moved centre stage once more, as the naming of a certain William Shakestaff in the will of Alexander de Hoghton in 1581 underpins a new interest in 'catholic' Shakespeare. Honan is the first major biographer (Honigmann excepted) to give serious attention to the theory that Shakespeare and Shakestaff were the same person by devoting a whole chapter to it. He does not go so far as to endorse this version of Shakespeare's 'lost years', preferring to maintain a level of skepticism. Yet this is to some extent disinegenous because, through repeated inferences here and elsewhere in the book, Honan writes as if he is persuaded by the theory. For example, Honan sees the recommendation to Rufford as a plausible way for Shakespeare to work his way in to the patronage of the Earl of Derby and so begin his career as a player. Honan's own admission that the theory is flawed is not balanced by any alternative reading of "the lost years" or any alternative story about Shakespeare's entrance into the theatre. Nor are its more difficult inconsistencies addressed: Honan does not draw attention to the fact that, if he was recommended to Rufford, he did not stay long, as his daughter was evidently conceived not long after Houghton's death; and Honan gives a misleading impression when he plays down the number of Shakestaffs in Lancashire at the time.

  6. Also, Honan argues that many of Shakespeare's landscape descriptions reflect close knowledge of England's west coast and provides examples from the early plays to illustrate his argument. This at least is not wholly convincing, and is reminiscent of the arguments that Shakespeare must have been to Italy, or have trained as a lawyer, or enlisted as a soldier, because of his apparent familiarity with these subjects in his plays. Honan wisely does not give any of these conjectures much credence here. Shakespeare could have acquired such geographical knowledge on tour, or in many other ways, or it could simply be that Honan is seeing patterns in the fire.

  7. Yet Honan is probably right to say that this remains the most plausible, most sustainable, and most interesting explanation for the lost years. Here, the theory is brought into the fold a little more, and Hoghton now has the same canonical status as Edward III or Hand D, hovering in a zone of indeterminacy until some definite proof can confirm what is likely to be true.

  8. This is a timely, well-written and accessible biography of Shakespeare, which is exceptional for its lucid descriptions of the landscapes and locales that Shakespeare knew and maybe wrote about. It is a strange thing, at the turn of the millennium, that something as creaky and unreliable as Shakespeare's biography should be a hot property again. Between Shakespeare in Love and Shakespeare in Hoghton, there is a renewed fascination with the sketchy details of a man who lived a life typical of his time, but lived it so untypically.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).