New trends in biographical writing often make readers imagine that they can understand and directly experience the presence of historical figures as if they knew them intimately. The essay reconsiders Shakespeare’s life and career in the light of these developments arguing that thinking that we can know Shakespeare well invariably leads to ignorance rather than enlightenment because the past can never be quite like the present. The post-romantic model of the lone genius or solitary author stubbornly remains even when critics accept that Shakespeare wrote collaboratively and that his work was created ‘in company’. Examining Shakespeare’s career and the conditions under which his work was produced reveals a writer who was always responsive to prevailing trends and whose writing has to be understood in its context. Shakespeare played an important role within his theatrical companies; worked with other actors; and always had one eye on what his fellow writers – and rivals – were doing, facts that are often obscured but which explain how he became what he was.