The best biography books that tell the truth

Arlene Naylor Okerlund Author Of Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)
By Arlene Naylor Okerlund

The Books I Picked & Why

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

By Jonathan Bate

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

Why this book?

Critics argue that William Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him because he lacked the knowledge of classical myth and history basic to his plots and imagery. Jonathan Bates proves that the curriculum of the grammar school in Stratford-on-Avon provided an education sufficient to explain Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Bate reviews books in English and Latin that Shakespeare would have read and that created his rhetorical brilliance. 

I treasure Bate’s biography because my own background originated in a rural, agricultural setting outside the social and economic circles that usually produce academic types. Bates disproves the fallacy that only the privileged and elite can survive and thrive in life and careers.


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William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life

By S. Schoenbaum

William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life

Why this book?

Schoenbaum’s massive compilation of documents from the life of William Shakespeare is the “go-to” book for anyone who wants the facts about the Bard. A large, folio-size edition, the book contains facsimiles of over 200 contemporary documents that record important moments and events in the life and career of Shakespeare. Arranged chronologically, Schoenbaum’s quite readable narrative explains the significance of each image and creates a living person from the documents that define Shakespeare, the man.

For anyone who asks the question, “Who Was Shakespeare,” Schoenbaum provides the answer. I love “just the facts.”


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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

By Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Why this book?

A literary biography, Will in the World connects the plots of Shakespeare’s plays and the sentiments of his poems to the writer’s life and career. No one living knows more about Shakespeare than Stephen Greenblatt. His research is solid and impressive. In this book, Greenblatt verges a bit into speculative possibilities. Where, exactly, was Shakespeare living—what was he doing?—during “The Lost Years”? Was the “Shakeshafte” mentioned in a Lancashire document our man, perhaps tutoring as a schoolmaster in a Catholic home? 

Greenblatt carefully points out that he is discussing possibilities, not certainties. But a possibility mentioned too many times by a scholar of Greenblatt’s authority often becomes accepted as fact. Yet, I appreciate this book because it provides a huge amount of information about Shakespeare’s milieu, and it forces readers to examine critically every claim. In our current milieu, we need exercises in critical thinking and analysis.


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Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre

By John Southworth

Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre

Why this book?

Written from an actor’s perspective, Shakespeare The Player researches acting companies in Stratford-on-Avon and England during Shakespeare’s youth and adolescence. Southwark explores the possibilities of Shakespeare spending those “Lost Years” from 1585-1592 as an apprentice with acting companies. Shakespeare The Player provides otherwise obscure information about the world of the theater during Shakespeare’s formative years as an actor and writer. 

How else did Shakespeare learn the crafts of writing, playing, and directing for which Robert Greene lambasted that “upstart crow…the only Shakes-scene in a country” in 1592?


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The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio

By Andrea Mays

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio

Why this book?

The Millionaire and the Bard almost makes you believe in money. This biography of Henry Clay Folger records a great American success story: “Poor-Boy-Makes-Good” (with money from Standard Oil). But look at what Folger did with his money! He collected copies of Shakespeare’s Folios, the first edition of which is the most valuable book in the world ($9.98 million for the copy sold in New York on October 14, 2020).  

Andrea Mays tells three stories: the biography of Henry Folger, who saved the First Folio; the story of the Folio itself (how it was published, read, and preserved); and the creation of the Folger Shakespeare Library, an amazing research and educational institution, improbably sited in Washington, D.C. I love this biography because it proves that one person (greatly assisted by his wife) can surely make a difference!


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