Book Review: William Shakespeare; His Life and Work by Anthony Holden

William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare: His Life and Work by Anthony Holden
Genre: Biography & History
Published: 2000 by Abacus
367 pages
Rating: ★★★★

Who was William Shakespeare?
How did the ‘rude groom’ from Straford, the son of a glover, grow up to be the greatest writer the world has known?
In this magisterial biography. Anthony Holden sifts facts from legend to create a fresh, vivid portrait of this most famous of writers – he recounts how the teenage Shakespeare was sent to a recusant Catholic household in Lancashire; his shotgun wedding to Anne Hathaway; his time moonlighting as horse-minder and prompter before acting and co-writing plays.
Holden describes how Shakespeare fell in love, how he endured the pangs of sexual jealousy, and how he became haunted by the loss of his son.
Wearing his considerable learning lightly, Anthony Holden brilliantly interleaves the poet’s own words with known acts to breathe life into a story never before told in such absorbing detail.

I am pretty sure that nearly everybody has heard of William Shakespeare and at some point, have had the opportunity to read this work. From an early age growing up in England, you know who Shakespeare is without even reading his work as he is a celebrated playwright. However, I first read one of William Shakespeare’s works for my GCSEs, most of my friends were in other classes reading some of Shakespeare’s works such as Romeo & Juliet, Othello or Much Ado About Nothing but I have to say that I was lucky with the text that my class were given; Midsummer’s Nights Dream. It is my favourite play from William Shakespeare, I love the plot and all the characters, but even though I knew of Shakespeare’s plays, I didn’t know much about the man himself! That is exactly what Anthony Holden’s biography is teaching me!

I was given this book as a birthday present from one of my best friends. When I opened the wrapping paper and say the book, I was so grateful as she knows of my love and passion for everything to do with history and especially the Tudor era, so I was so happy with receiving this book. However, I began thinking to myself ‘I don’t know much about William Shakespeare, I know of his plays and he wrote them, but I’m not really interested‘…..That all changed since watching Ben Elton’s comedy show on William Shakespeare called ‘Upstart Crow‘ featuring David Mitchell as the Bard himself and when I decided to go to Shakespeare’s birthplace and hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon! The book had been on my shelf for over 2 years and it seemed like the right time for me to read about Shakespeare when visiting where he grew up, and it has taught me many things so far!

Anthony Holden’s book on William Shakespeare doesn’t just look at the man behind the plays, but also the atmosphere and events that may have inspired his plays and his friendship and relationship with key figures in the theatre business and his patrons such as the Earl of Southampton, Elizabeth I and James I.

This book is very informative and detailed, as it has managed to teach me more about the theatre during the Elizabethan Era and has taught me about William himself, and his family life. However, with the book being very detailed, sometimes I feel that the author was talking more about the theatres, Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights and actors rather than the subject of the book. Also, I love reading books that detail every section of a historical figures life and actions, but sadly with this book I wasn’t really enjoying how much detail was in the book and I found myself (dare I say it….) actually bored, although I must admit I started to enjoy the book and the many fine details by the end of the book.

The book’s chapters are structured by the years and what William was doing at the time, for example, ‘Childhood 1569-1579‘ talked about William’s childhood, what sorts of things he would have done as a child during the Elizabethan period, such as attending the local school of King Edward VI school, what he would have learnt at school and also attending the local church. The other chapters are as followed; ‘Stratford 1564-1569‘; ‘The Lost Years 1579-1587‘; ‘London 1587-1592‘; ‘The Upstart Crow 1592-1594‘; ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Man 1594-1596‘; ‘My Absent Child 1596-1599‘, ‘The Globe 1599-1603‘, ‘The King’s Man 1603-1606‘, ‘The Antique Roman 1606-1608‘, ‘Blackfriars 1608-1611‘ and ‘A Merry Meeting 1611-1616‘. This allowed for the author to be able to talk in detail Shakespeare’s life and what plays he wrote during some of those years, and the events and relationships he experienced that would be reflected through themes, characters and scenes throughout his many plays.

Reading the chapter ‘My Absent Child‘ did really move me when the author began talking about the death of Shakespeare’s only son and heir, Hamnet. This did make me a tiny bit teary, as I empathised and sympathised with Shakespeare as Hamnet was only 11 years old when he died, but it was interesting as the author explained that Hamnet would haunt and be a constant presence throughout his father’s later works. It was also claimed that the play ‘Hamlet‘ would be dedicated to his son, as back in those times ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ would have been interchangeable and there were many different ways that one would have spelt their name, so easily would Hamnet be Hamlet.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about one of the most famous playwrights throughout history. This book would also give you more knowledge and insight into the world of theatres and plays during the Elizabethan and Stuart era, which I must say that I never knew before!



  1. I am a Shakespearean maniac, and I think I had better read this book! I can see how some of the tedious details would be boring, but I think, since you still gave it a 3-star, I should still like to read this one…thanks for a great review!
    Shakespeare forever,
    Emily 🙂


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