Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus, $363 Only an enthusiast would know that William Shakespeare mentions 108 plants and 60 species of bird in his works, that there are 23 allusions to Aesop's fables, in Latin, and 80 references to falconry, and that the most mentioned piece of architecture is the Tower of London. Shakespeare also uses 66 words for the vagina, has 'a host of words for the male penis' and makes 'insistent references to sodomy, buggery and fellatio'. Peter Ackroyd regards himself as an enthusiast, not to be confused with the army of academics in the Shakespearean field, and his Shakespeare: The Biography is the product of a life-long passion for the Bard and a love of language. It's surprising then, that at the end of his 488-page examination of almost everything that's been written and said about Shakespeare during and after his 53 years, there's little we know for certain about the man credited with 36 plays and 154 sonnets - some of the finest works in the English language. 'He is one of those rare cases of a writer whose work is singularly important and influential, yet whose personality was not considered to be of any interest at all,' says the author. 'He is obscure and elusive, precisely to the extent that nobody bothered to write about him.' There is only one record of Shakespeare speaking, in a court case, and the first biography wasn't published until the beginning of the 18th century. By then the celebrated playwright had been dead for some time - he shuffled off his mortal coil in 1616. 'Now entertain conjecture of a time/When creeping murmur and the poring dark/Fill the wide vessel of the universe,' Shakespeare himself probably spoke on the stage in 1599 as Chorus in Henry V. This elusiveness has allowed an academic industry to flourish for centuries around the question of who Shakespeare was and what his work means. Ackroyd has fun at the expense of academe with this book, suggesting that Shakespeare himself would have been surprised at what he's supposed to have meant when he wrote Hamlet or King Lear. But he allows that such was Shakespeare's genius as a writer and his ability to become the character he was creating that meaning became an almost subconscious affair. It's into the imagination and a remarkable mind that Ackroyd delves to explain this outwardly nondescript man of rural upbringing and urban experience who almost single-handedly defines the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare, however, shed no tears when the queen died. She had beheaded his close friend, the Duke of Essex, and was later in her rule to be a persecutor of Catholics. Ackroyd suggests that Shakespeare was one and lived in fear of exposure. It wasn't until James I that he won the social laurels he apparently so craved. On the issue of some unknown writer being responsible for his work, Ackroyd is dismissive - it could have come from the imagination of no other. Ackroyd builds a clear, methodical image of an observant and bright country lad from Stratford who goes to London in search of fame and fortune, at which point the story comes alive in vibrant detail, to be expected from the author of London: The Biography. It is important to note that London will never again be as young as it was in the late 16th century, with half the urban population aged under 20 and 40 deemed to be the onset of old age. 'The reign of Elizabeth has often been seen as that of an ageing monarch surrounded by foolish and headstrong boys; strange though it may seem, it is part of an authentic historical picture. But the boys - and girls - were also on the streets of London, buying and selling, conversing and fighting.' Plague was also a constant summer visitor to the city, wiping out up to a quarter of London's population at a time. With death so close, it's not surprising Elizabethan England was very much into sex. 'The Elizabethan age was one of great and open promiscuity,' Ackroyd says. Shakespeare 'outrivals Chaucer and the 18th-century novelists in his command of smut and bawdry', he writes, declaring the Bard to have been 'preoccupied with sexuality in all its forms'. Ackroyd declines, however, to speculate on Shakespeare's sexual orientation. 'In his writing he knew what it was like to be Cleopatra and Antony, both Juliet and Romeo,' he says. 'More than any of his contemporaries he created memorable female roles. This does not imply that he was in any sense homosexual, but suggests, rather, an unfixed or floating sexual identity.' The academicians have already appeared on television to carp about Ackroyd, so he must have got something right in this enjoyable, amusing and thoughtful book that, for most of us, can stand as the definitive study of a quiet man infused with a gift of genius he sought to share.