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Lives, like texts, may be read many ways. Peter Levi’s The Life and Times of William Shakespeare is the reading of a distinguished poet and Oxford Professor of Poetry, immersed in and thrilled by the range of Shakespeare’s verse, but less conversant with the scholarship of Elizabethan history, particularly theatrical history, and essentially out of sympathy with the modern ‘reductionist’ strain of academic Shakespearian biography, pre-eminently represented by S. Schoen-baum’s Compact Documentary Life. The temperamental difference between the two ‘readings’ is best indicated by their reactions to ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’. Schoenbaum originally overlooked the poem altogether, but grudgingly describes it in the revised edition as ‘a much discussed curiosity . . . [which] shows Shakespeare in the unfamiliar role of nonce poet’ (pp. 327–8). For Levi, it ‘is the most breathtaking of all his poems, and I have heard old critics, devoted to poetry of many kinds all their lives, agree on it as the greatest poem in the English language’ (p. 214). Shakespeare the writer of supreme verse, rather than Shakespeare the practical man of theatre, is Levi’s hero, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that – odd though it may sound to late twentieth-century ears.
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