Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This audiobook was a perfect companion for a long road trip. Bill
Bryson, who has now written books on everything from the history of the
universe to the origins of our domesticity to America in the 1920s and,
perhaps most endearingly, stories of his various travels around the
world, here turns his attention to William Shakespeare.
relatively slim volume (it's less than 200 pages), Bryson researched
what few facts are known about Shakespeare and synthesized them into
chapters on his childhood, his "lost years" (1585-1592), his time in
London, his plays, his fame, his death and, finally, the strange claims
that Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him.
most Americans, I was first introduced to Shakespeare in high school,
when we read Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and a few of his sonnets. I've
read more of his plays since then, but until now I have never read a
biography of the man himself. After reading Bryson's book, I feel like I
know as much as any modern person can know, simply because so few facts
have survived. One Shakespeare scholar told Bryson that "every
Shakespeare biography is 5 percent fact and 95 percent conjecture."
the few surviving portraits that are purportedly of Shakespeare cannot
be verified. "The paradoxical consequence is that we all recognize a
likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don't really
know what he looked like. It is like this with nearly every aspect of
his life and character: He is at once the best known and least known of
I liked reading the details of Shakespeare's life, but I
think my favorite chapter was the last one on Claimants. Bryson thinks
he has identified the person that started what he calls the
anti-Shakespeare sentiment, an American woman named Delia Bacon. Bacon
became convinced that Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare's plays,
and in 1852 she traveled to England to try to prove that Shakespeare was
a fraud. Of course, there is no evidence of this, nor of any other
claimants writing Shakespeare's works, but some researchers continue to
come up with theories. Bryson picks apart the claims and shows what
little merit there is to them.
"The one thing all the competing
theories have in common is the conviction that William Shakespeare was
in some way unsatisfactory as an author of brilliant plays. This is
really quite odd. Shakespeare's upbringing, as I hope this book has
shown, was not backward or in any way conspicuously deprived. His father
was the mayor of a consequential town. In any case, it would hardly be a
unique achievement for someone brought up modestly to excel later in
life. Shakespeare lacked a university education, to be sure, but then so
did Ben Jonson -- a far more intellectual playwright -- and no one ever
suggests that Jonson was a fraud ... When we reflect upon the works of
William Shakespeare it is of course an amazement to consider that one
man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling,
ever-delighting body of work, but that is of course the hallmark of
genius. Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such
incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was
unquestionably that man -- whoever he was."
I would heartily
recommend this book to fans of English literature and history. It has
Bryson's trademark dry wit and humorous phrasings, so Bryson fans should
also be satisfied. The audio CD I had also included an interview with
the author, which was delightful, as expected.
On a more alarming note, I'm nearly out of Bryson books to read. Now that will be the winter of my discontent.