Michael Dobson

Such a Darling When One Knew Him Well

William Shakespeare: A Life

By Garry O’Connor

Hodder & Stoughton 368pp £17.95 order from our bookshop

Contrary to popular belief, a great many traces survive from the life of William Shakespeare: entries in parish records, legal papers, at least one authenticated portrait, a few anecdotes (some apocryphal), and some interesting allusions in the writings of contemporaries – quite apart from the Sonnets, two narrative poems, and those 37-odd plays (most of which, despite all the nonsense published in their praise every year, really are extremely good). For certain readers, however, all this still leaves much to be desired. There is no evidence, for example, to suggest that Shakespeare was ever photographed with Kenneth Branagh; no interviews survive from the Observer Colour Supplement to reveal the bard’s frank opinions on Sir Ian McKellen, ecology or the Arts Council; and no document uncovered to date to suggest that he was ever romantically involved with either Peggy Ashcroft or Laurence Olivier or any of their respective ex-spouses. In short, the biggest theatrical celebrity of all time has so far been, as theatrical celebrities go, a bit of a non-starter.

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