THE GREATEST PROBLEM for the biographer of Shakespeare has always been to separate the facts from the legend. By the standards of his own time, Shakespeare's career is reasonably well documented -- in fact, we know more about him than about any other Elizabethan playwright. That has never been enough, of course, and every age from the mid-17th century on has recreated a Shakespheare in its own image: the plays and poems, if we treat them as aspects of biography, provide evidence for any Shakespeare we wish to conceive. Or for none; their evidence is hopelessly contradictory, an index not to the variety of Shakespeare's life but to the fertility of his imagination and his estraordinary powers of observation, assimilation, and most of all, expression.

When S. Schoenbaum set out to write the life of Shakespeare for this generation, he first confronted the legend. Shakespeare's Lives, published in 1970, is a history of Shakespearean biography, a study of the romance between succeeding ages and our greatest playwright. To get to the man himself, Schoenbaum then turned to the only hard evidence remaining to us, building up a life of the poet through a scrupulous examination of every surviving document relating to Shakespeare. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975) is the place to go for anyone interested in the facts of Shakespeare's career. Now, in what is essentially the final volume of a trilogy, Schoenbaum has produced William Shakespeare: Records and Images.

The new books provides a context for the Documentary Life, taking us both further into Shakespearean biography and extending it farther outward. Schoenbaum's documents reveal a distinctly prosaic Shakespeare here: the small businessman buying a piece of London rental property, suing over two bad debts, protecting his interests in the enclosure of some Stratford farmland. No romance, no evidence of genius, just the stuff of life. The plays appear as commercial transactions, too, entries in the Stationers' Register, the publishers' copyright book -- Shakespeare's name is not even attached to them. Schoenbaum reproduced eyewitness accounts of three performances at the Globe in 1611, of MacBeth, The Winter's Tale, and Cymnbeline: a fascinating survival, but the reports are confusing and maddeningly uninformative. All the examples of Shakespeare's handwriting are here, a sad litle collection of six signatures, plus a brief scene in manuscript from a play called Sir Thomas More, which may or may not be Shakespearean. Finally, Schoenbaum documents the legend. There is a brisk chapter on Shakespearean portraits (only two, the engraving on the title page of the folio and the memorial sculpture in the Stratford parish church, have any claim to authenticity), and a delightful look at the forgers William-Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier, who undertook to create a romantic archeology for this modest middle-class genius.

All the book's documents appear both in transcriptions and remarkably clear facsimiles, and there are dozens of additional illustrations. Schoenbaum's prose provides a lucid, judicious and good-natured guide to this mass of largely unpromising material. The price of the book seems staggering, but the number and quality of the reproductions, it is probbly not excessive.

A.L. Rowse's What Shakespeare Read -- And Thought, as its coy title suggests, is firmly in the tradition of Shakespearean romance. There is nothing new in this breezy survey, a frank rehash of material easily available elsewhere, including in works of Rowse's own. The plays and poems are treated as aspects of biography and social history -- which they unquestionably are, though hardly with the kind of uncomplicated directness Rowse wants to find them in. For Rowse, Berowne (in Love's Labour's Lost) "is in fact Shakespeare himself"; "anyone who knows the goings-on at Elizabeth I's Court" can recognize the Earl of Essex in Bolingbroke, in the sulking Achilles, in Hamlet's "fatal indecision and self-questioning"; those who know old Burghley well can recognize the touches of him in Polonius." No doubt: we see in the plays what interests us, and their astonishing universality lies precisely in their ability to mirror so many disparate kinds of minds.

Critics who see something more than clues to Shakespeare's biography in his poetry and dram, or who disagree with Rowse's pronouncements, or who are dubious about the accuracy of his speculations, are bullied and scolded, though rarely by name, and never with the supporting evidence that would allow a reader to judge the merits of the case. Several energetic rear-guard actions are fought in defense of Rowse's identification of the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets as a woman called Emilia Lanier. The tone here becomes especially aggrieved and embattled, and it will baffle readers unfamiliar with the history of this particular speculation.

When Rowse first proposed Emilia as his candidate for the Dark Lady, he offered two, and only two, pieces of external evidence. The first concerned her romantic involvement with the astrologer and physician Simon Forman, who lived in London throughout Shakespeare's career. In the course of a detailed (and extremely valuable) study of Forman's notebooks, Rowse found an entry that described Emilia as have been "in her youth very brown" -- a dark lady. And Emilia's husband was named William: this second bit of evidence seemed to clinch the argument, since one of Shakespeare's sonnets implies that the Dark Lady is involved with someone other than the poet called Will (in fact, the sonnet says with several other Wills).

Alas for the frailty of evidence: within a very few weeks a scholar more familiar with Elizabethan handwriting than Rowse had shown that Forman's notebook described Emilia as having been in her youth not "brown" but "brave" (i.e., goodlooking), and a better genealogist than Rowse had revealed that Emilia was married to Alphonso Lanier, not William. Rowse silently withdrew the erring evidence from subsequent claims about Emilia, but continues to insist, disingenuously, that "the identification of the Dark Lady is clear from the complete concurrence of all the evidence, internal and external."

There is honest learning and wide reading in this book, but it keeps being overwhelmed by the rhetoric of Rowse's private war with those he has failed to convince. The general reader looking for a guide to Shakespearean contexts will find himself constantly caught in the crossfire. A less speculative but far more informative alternative is S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: The Globe and the World, published last year in connection with the Folger Library's traveling exhibition of that name. Readers who find the legendary Shakespeare irresistible should try Anthony Burgess' Shakespeare, pure speculation, but brilliantly done. Both books are, in paperback, less expensive than Rowse's, and beautifully illustrated.