Although a slim volume, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries by Charles Nicholl (published by the British National Portrait Gallery 2005) accomplishes it’s purpose. As the title indicates, the volume illustrates the various persons, distinguished and not, that Shakespeare was familiar with during the years of his life. Some of these people were associates of the Bard: fellow writers, patrons, and actors. Others were higher class gentlemen and ladies, such as the queen and her ladies in waiting. All were people who were alive during Shakespeare’s writing years, and he probably was familiar with them.
As it was published by the National Portrait Gallery, most of the Bard’s contemporaries’ portraits are shown (although it is interesting to see just which people he associated with do not have any remaining portraits: they will be forever faceless). Nicholl’s text does justice to the limited space the volume was intended to fill: he does not wax long on unnecessary bibliographical details, but rather keeps his succinct thoughts on Shakespeare’s contemporaries relevant to the life details that may be interesting to the scholar of Shakespeare. The tone is official and to the point: it’s not necessarily a light read. That said, given the brevity and succinct nature of the writing, it is a perfect tone.
This volume is not a complete portrait of any contemporary of Shakespeare, nor a complete portrait of the Bard himself. Nonetheless, it is certainly an appropriate scholarly introduction to Shakespeare’s possibly significant contemporaries. The volume’s audience may be limited to scholars: I had to request an Interlibrary Loan from a nearby university library.
Nonetheless, I must remind the reader of this blog once again that I am not a scholar, nor did I read the volume with a scholar’s eye: I’m simply a reader of Shakespeare who was curious about those he may or may not have associated with. Because my purposes in reading are not scholarly, I’m certain the sketches of the various people will not remain with me. All the same, I’m glad I picked up Shakespeare and His Contemporaries right now: it was a perfect glimpse at the significant persons living during Shakespeare’s lifetime.