Monday, 9 August 2010

Review of Bill Bryson - Shakespeare: The World as a Stage

Although best known for his travel books this is far from Bryson's first venture into other fields. He has written the obligatory (for a writer) book of personal memoirs ("The Life and Time of the Thunderbolt Kid"), a book or two on the English language ("Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words") and even one on the sum total of human knowledge ("A Short History of Nearly Everything"). And now he has turned his hand to biography with this book on the greatest of all authors.

This feels remarkably well researched - despite being such a short book he lists three and a half pages of selected bibliography. This amount of available research material does not mean, however, that much is actually known about Shakespeare life - far from it. Bryson even makes fun of this fact throughout the book.

The book explains the few known facts of Shakespeare's life and how they are known - his birth (or rather his baptism, the exact date of his birth being inferred from the baptismal ceremony), his schooling, his marriage and fathering of children in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Then moving on, Bryson details the little that is known of Shakespeare's life in London - lodgings, acting, a few various financial activities including taxes and house purchases and finally his death and will.

All of these items provide such a frustratingly small portion of Shakespeare's life, giving rise to a plethora of guesses, educated and otherwise (mainly just wishful thinking), about the unknown years.

Bryson however, does not join in this make-believe. The book includes many of the speculations that other biographers have made about aspects of Shakespeare's life. He humorously dismisses the more outlandish claims - his sexuality, his religious affiliations and even whether or not he was actually the author of the books attributed to him, whilst being fair and even-handed to the more reasonable speculations.

But this book is far more than a presentation of the scant few known facts about Shakespeare's life, with a discussion on Shakespearean research and commentary tacked on. Bryson sets his life into its context, explaining the conditions, customs and opportunities of London in the late sixteenth century. He grounds Shakespeare in his world, proving how he was fortuitous he was to enter the theatrical world of London in the middle of a golden period.

The book also answers one question - why is Shakespeare remembered as he is? If he lived in a London filled with theatres, actors and playwrights, why aren't his contemporaries' works as widely known, especially given as he was not one the most of the most productive of Elizabethan London's authors?

As Bryson states in this book - of the twenty-nine surviving plays from this period consisting of three thousand words or more, fully twenty-two are by Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. This leads naturally to the question (answered within these pages), "Why is William Shakespeare so well represented?"

And in answering this Bryson places Shakespeare not only in his time but also very much in ours, exploring how the writer has lived beyond his days when many other Elizabethan playwrights are known now only by scant references in obscure documents.

Bill Bryson could probably explain anything. He has such a wonderfully friendly, relaxed, easy-to-understand way of writing. His writing is full of joy, and reading his prose brings a smile to your face. And he is an honest writer.

Although you do get the impression that he is a strong proponent of Shakespeare Bryson doesn't put him on a high pedestal or believe him a man incapable of errors. Whilst discussing his work he is happy to list several of Shakespeare's mistakes, shortcuts and laziness of writing. This helps make the book a well rounded, balanced piece. There is no vitriolic criticism, and no hero-worship. This is a straightforward history (as well as can be presented from the lack of information) of the English language most famous writer - and very entertaining it is too.

2 comments:

Dale T. Phillips said...

I like a lot of Bryson's work, and read the Shakespeare on your recommendation. Loved it! A necessary addition to the canon. Thanks for the tip.

I.E. Lester said...

I'm glad you liked it - especially as you bought it on my recommendation.

I've read a couple of other books on Shakespeare and usually find they are a little inventive, almost making it a novelisation rather than an analysis.

Plus as you say Bill Bryson is a great writer