In adding to the groaning pile of this year’s Bardlit, Bill Bryson at least offers two qualities William Shakespeare prized and that are in chronically short supply in many books about him—brevity and wit.
William Shakespeare: The World as Stage is the latest addition to the Penguin Lives series, notable for the sometimes inspired and occasionally weird pairing of subject and author. “This book was written, not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because the series does,” Bryson admits with disarming candor.
And if the publication of his modest volume fills the annual Shakespeare quota and prevents another deranged academic from printing proof positive that Shakespeare’s plays were written posthumously by Geoffrey Chaucer, then more power to Bryson.
What Bryson demonstrates in sifting through the scant known facts and documents of Shakespeare’s life is that there is room for a sane secular voice amid the Babel of scholarly contention and wild conjecture that surrounds him. All too often, you pick up a new biography and find that speculation advanced in the timid subjunctive in the early going assumes the mantle of unassailable truth a few chapters later.
As one scholar in the field tells Bryson half in jest: “Every Shakespeare biography is five percent fact and 95 percent speculation.”
So it is easy to take a few scraps of information to propose that Shakespeare was a Catholic (a dangerous faith to follow in Elizabeth’s England) even if it is largely the author’s wishful thinking. Nobody can trot out documents to prove you are manifestly wrong.
Fans of Bryson and his eclectic and popular resume should not expect the zanier humor and entertainment of some of his thoughts on language and, especially, his travel writing. What he offers here is a levelheaded assessment leavened with ironic asides that are more in character.
Fittingly, he starts with the celebrated Chandos portrait, whose authenticity is engulfed in a mystery of its own. Shakespeare’s enduring enigma begins at birth. We cannot be sure that he came into the world on April 23, 1564. It’s simply the traditional date.
Instead of concocting some plausible theories to fill in the many gaps in what we know about Shakespeare, Bryson draws a concise picture of his times—from the working conditions and admission prices of the Elizabethan theater to what people ate, drank and wore. He notes with amazement that the consumption of beer was a gallon daily for each person, without seeming to realize that such tippling was a necessity because the water was too foul and dangerous to drink.
Although he has visited the archives that hold Shakespearean treasures—such as the Folger Library in Washington with its unrivaled collection of First Folios—Bryson doesn’t pretend to any original scholarship. His Shakespeare is a work of honest synthesis.
I especially enjoyed his spirited rejoinder to the thriving industry that has developed to advance the claims of others as the “real” authors of Shakespeare’s plays. This began in the mid-19th century with the idea that Francis Bacon was the man. Bryson is right to stress what has always seemed to me a compelling rebuttal: Nobody ever questioned Shakespeare’s authorship in his lifetime. Nor did the two friends and colleagues who prepared the First Folio seven years after his death and put his name and image on the title page. For the next two centuries no one raised a hint of doubt.
The first stab at a Shakespeare life was published in 1709 by the poet laureate Nicholas Rowe. A later scholar noted that of the 11 facts asserted in the course of Rowe’s 40 fanciful pages, eight were wrong. The avalanche of studies and biographies has continued unabated ever since, and it sometimes seems that Rowe’s batting average set a standard for accuracy and plausibility.
If you want more considered and extensive recent consideration of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode’s The Age of Shakespeare; James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare; and Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare are all highly commendable.
Bryson’s unassuming and enjoyable survey is a useful introduction that students and playgoers will find handy. It is the work of a man who clearly loves Shakespeare and is bold enough to hold the conviction, heretical as it may be in some quarters, that he actually wrote the immortal texts that bear his name.
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