Shakespeare: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd
I suspect also that Ackroyd picks writers whose work he knows intimately. This book is lavish with commentary on the plays where Ackroyd often makes connections between the language of a play and the source of the image or metaphor, whether it's a wildflower that grows in the hedgerow or the smells of the tanner's trade. The best thing one can say about a biography of a famous writer is that it makes you want to read his work or read it again, and that's certainly how I left this biography, certain that Ackroyd had given me insights which would be valuable for future rereadings.
But Ackroyd doesn't analyze Shakespeare's life by interpreting the plays. He's done an enormous amount of research and one feels is likely to have ferreted out each deed, legal notice, church record or theatrical document that gives even a hint at where Shakespeare was and what he was doing at any given time. There are also no huge leaps of faith, no wild psychological theories. He sometimes goes through a catalog of the possible meanings of a detail and concludes that it's impossible to pin down with any certainty at all.
He sees Shakespeare as an ambitions and practical man. We may not know why he originally became an actor or left his family in Stratford for most of his adult life, but we do know that he was a good businessman and a solid craftsman of the theatre. In his lifetime he was not viewed as the foremost writer of his or any other time, but a theatre hack, one who worked with a company of actors, acted himself and took an ownership position in the company. Unlike Ben Jonson, who was considered a writer with a capital W and who wrote plays as he wrote poems but hadn't much otherwise to do with the theatre, Shakespeare did all the work of the theatre and for most of his career acted as well as wrote. He was anything but the bard in an ivory tower. He studied English translations of popular histories to find material for his dramas and often wrote plays on the subject of the hour as well as retold popular stories of the time.
Ackroyd sees Shakespeare as a taking the lives of kings and rulers as his primary subject. Pomp and protocol were important to him, and represented not only the subjects he wrote about but the values he held. He went out of his way to be granted a coat of arms and the designation of "gentleman", putting up with barbs and satires by fellow writers seeking to make fun of his social climbing. He may also have been a Catholic. There's no absolute evidence, but Shakespeare's family had numerous Catholic and recusant connections. [A recusant is an English Roman Catholic of the time from about 1570 to 1791 who refused to attend services of the Church of England and thereby committed a statutory offense and may even have requested extreme unction in what Ackroyd calls "the old religion".]
I doubt this book stakes out new territory for Shakespeare scholarship, but it's readable and enjoyable and absolutely chock full of explanations for those Shakespearian lines one is likely to find puzzling because we doesn't know much about the world Shakespeare lived in. Ackroyd does know that world, possibly as intimately as anyone writing in 2005.