SBD: Shakespeare according to Bill Bryson

Today’s SBD:  Shakespeare – what do we really know about him?  He wrote a lot of plays and some sonnets; he was from Stratford upon Avon, where his wife remained even as he spent years in London as an actor and playwright.  That seems pretty basic, and then there are the dedications to the Earl of Southampton and the poems to a beautiful youth, which encourage speculation that he was at least bisexual, and the dark lady of other sonnets.

Okay, really, what do we know for certain about Shakespeare?  That’s the question that Bill Bryson asks and addresses in his Shakespeare – the World as Stage.

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a wild supposition arranged around scant facts.  With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.  His Shakespeare is like no one else’s — the beneficiary of Bryson’s genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

That blurb indicates that Bryson reveals Shakespeare the man, when in fact Bryson very clearly indicates that he has NO IDEA who the man was as an individual and that there is little surviving information that would provide enough detail to draw any conclusions that were not purely speculative.

Bryson breaks the book, which is relatively short, coming in at only 196 pages, into an introductory chapter followed by chapters on the early years (what is known of his youth, primarily a function of his father’s position); the lost years (no one knows what he was doing or where he was); the London years; the plays; the years of fame; the Jacobean years; death; and claimants (the publication of the First Folio, and later speculation about provenance of his plays).  Bryson first disabuses readers of the notion that there are many primary sources of information from Shakespeare’s time.  He spends the vast majority of the book talking about academic speculation built on the scraps of verifiable evidence and textual analysis.  He himself does not engage in textual analysis, but hypothesizes who Shakespeare might have been as a man and a citizen of England and London during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.  The main difference between Bryson and the academics he chides seems to be his open acknowledgement that what he is doing is pure speculation, in addition to the fact that he draws no particular conclusions.

I found the book interesting in the sense that it questions things that the average person thinks s/he “knows” about Shakespeare, but generally preferred the more generic sections in which Bryson discussed the history of London or the tension between Protestants and Catholics to the sections specific to the man.  I haven’t read anything else by Bryson, so I can’t really compare; the blurb touts his wit and storytelling gift, which seemed a little flat here.  Still, I’d recommend the book as an antidote to the “biography” that is fed to students in standard high school and college survey literature courses.

Afterthought: I didn’t realize that in real life Derek Jacobi belongs to the Oxford camp, which makes his appearance in Anonymous that much more interesting.



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6 responses to “SBD: Shakespeare according to Bill Bryson

  1. I liked this one for the reasons you say, but don’t feel it’s a particularly good example of Bryson’s work. Nowhere near as good as the books that have made him one of my favourite authors. If you want to try something more, I would suggest either Made in America (a very non-scholarly romp through the history and evolution of American English) or A Walk in the Woods (about hiking the Appalachian Trail).

  2. I was going to ask if you’d seen Anonymous even before your brief mention. 🙂 Did you see it? Did you like it?

    I have had Bryson recommended to me so many times because I love books and I love to travel. I haven’t finished one of his books yet. It certainly seems like something I should like (even while I’m reading it and not liking it I think this) but instead of finding him witty I find him offensive, instead of finding him funny I find him pompous. I really can’t figure out why he puts a burr in my saddle but he does. I am an island unto myself on this one, though, as sales indicate.

    • I did see Anonymous, and I liked it a lot even though there were some plot holes and historical liberties taken. I’ve seen Rhys Ifans mostly in comedies or roles in which he plays a flake or eccentric, and he performance in Anonymous made the movie IMO.

      Pompous…I hadn’t thought about it, but that does describe his attitude toward scholars and their speculative conclusions and the Shakespeare-obsessed.

  3. Oh cool, just bumped Anon to the top of my queue. I was on the fence before… Thanks!

  4. Pingback: March in books | Shuffling through a book-less desert

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