A Life of William Shakespeare

by Joseph Quincy Adams, Professor of English in Cornell University. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1923. 8vo. xvii+544 pp, $7.50.
PROFESSOR Adams has done far more than merely give a new turn to an old subject. Of recent years there has been plenty of light on Shakespeare, his associates, his theatre, and his plays, but the divergent rays have been badly in need of focusing. Professor Adams offers an accurate and well-polished lens. Though Shakespeare was ‘for all time,’ he was also peculiarly a product of his own age, and it is Professor Adams’s special virtue that he places the man and the dramatist against the lively background of the seething period in which he wrote, making him a part of it and explaining his work through his surroundings.
There have been important additions to our knowledge of Shakespeare himself in the last few years, while our knowledge of the theatre in which he lived and worked has grown enormously. Professor Wallace has unearthed facts and documents when the records were thought to be exhausted. Professor Pollard, Mr. Greg, and Mr. Wilson, by patient study of the various texts, have brought to light some curiously human stories — not the least interesting of which concerns the exploits of one ‘hireling’ member of the Globe Theatre’s company, who seems to have systematically stolen one after another of Shakespeare’s plays for the benefit of piratical Elizabethan publishers. Much of this valuable and interesting information is scattered, either in technical periodicals — which are distinctly caviare to the general — or else in dozens of books too specialized to be widely read. Professor Adams welds all this into one volume.
The new ‘Life’ is an authoritative statement of the facts about Shakespeare, in the light of the latest studies, by a scholar whose work on Shakespearean Playhouses long ago established his reputation. But it is something more than merely authoritative. Possessing that indispensable merit, it is also preëminently readable a fascinating book in and of itself.
The book is none the less interesting — perhaps it even gains in interest — because the author has deliberately eschewed æsthetic discussions, which, as he says, ‘ may be found elsewhere in abundance,’ and has bent his efforts to making a human study of the man Shakespeare. In doing this he has avoided the temptation to mere speculation. He has stuck to the facts and to the inferences that they clearly justify when interpreted in the light of his own wide familiarity with the ways and thoughts of good Queen Bess’s subjects.
‘ I have chiefly aimed at clarity,’ says Professor Adams in his preface, and it is, indeed, his amazing clarity which gives his work its principal value. Here is no heaviness, no pedantic display of learning, no vague and airy allusiveness — assuming in the reader a knowledge which concerns only the special scholar. Instead he presents us with a close-knit narrative into which he has crowded all the facts and the genuinely significant theories about Shakespeare, without for a moment forgetting that his main business is to give us a living picture of the central figure in English literature. JOHN BAKELESS.