Celeste Davidson Mannis

Grosset & Dunlap


105pp/$4.99/December 2006

Who Was William Shakespeare?
Cover by Nancy Harrison

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Celeste Davidson Mannis tackles one of historical biography's most difficult subjects in Who Was William Shakespeare? While certain aspects of Shakespeare's life can be discussed with some clarity, the suggestion on the back of the book that he was "A man who remains a mystery to this day" is what causes the most problems, especially when writing a biography like this, aimed at younger readers.

Mannis begins her biography with Shakespeare's birth in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Even as she notes how little is known about Shakespeare, she outlines what life was like in sixteenth century England, if not specifically for Shakespeare, than for someone growing up in his circumstances.  In doing this, she uses Shakespeare as an example and is careful to point out how much of what she is stating is speculation.

Even after Shakespeare left Stratford to move to London, little is known about him, and in this case Mannis skips over seven years of his life.  Where there is information about him, she does include it, especially about the manner in which plays were performed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and Shakespeare's relationships with the powers that be.

With nearly forty plays to his name, it isn't possible for Mannis to fully describe, even briefly, all of them. She doesn't try.  In fact, she doesn't even provide a list of Shakespeare's plays (which would have been a nice addition. Instead, she looks at some of Shakespeare's most famous plays, including "Julius Caesar," "Richard II," "Hamlet," Othello," "Macbeth," "King Lear," and "The Tempest." In many of these cases, Mannis describes the social and political events which lead, often directly, to the writing of the play.

Mannis's look at Shakespeare is cursory at best, giving a glimpse into the playwright and his works, without fully explaining the importance of his works, although in an introductory work of this sort, such is not to be expected.  The book could benefit from a simple list of all of Shakespeare's plays in addition to the short bibliography of works (most of which are not aimed at the same age range) about Shakespeare's life.

Who Was William Shakespeare? gives an adequate introduction to the Bard's life and works, but at the same time, leaves Shakespeare as an enigma.  Despite Mannis's care in pointing out what is and isn't known about Shakespeare's life, some readers in the age range for which the book is targeted may not be able to distinguish the difference.   

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