on November 26, 2007
A tough assignment; write a book on a topic about which we know almost nothing, the life of William Shakespeare. Better yet, make the book about the fact that we know very little about the life of William Shakespeare. Let that book compete with thousands of others about Shakespeare. Doesn't sound like a recipe for a successful book, but Bryson has truly pulled it off.
First off, Bryson doesn't shy away from the fact that we know very little about Shakespeare, instead, he uses it to his advantage. After laying out the facts we do have about Shakespeare, Bryson turns to a description of the world in which Shakespeare lived to explain why we know so little about the man. He really brings 17th century England to life and paints a picture in which you can imagine Shakespeare operating. It's really well done and ends up being fascinating.
Second, Bryson addresses the speculation that has risen up around Shakespeare's life to fill the void of knowledge that we face. Using the information we do have about Shakespeare and the times in which he lived, he categorizes the various Shakespeare theories into more fanciful and less fanciful piles and explains why they belong there. It makes for really interesting reading.
My familiarity with and interest in Shakespeare are average to below average, and yet I found this book to be fascinating, readable and informative. It's made me more interested in Shakespeare.
Highly recommended even for those who aren't deeply interested in Shakespeare.
I am one of those individuals who enjoy Bryson's work. When I read this author's books, I get the impression that he does not take himself all that serious, much in the same way I take myself. I can relate. This little volume on the individual who is probably and arguably the greatest of all our English writers is no exception. It, as others here have pointed out, is sort of a book about nothing. By that I mean, we know almost absolute nothing of the man, William Shakespeare. We don't even know for sure how he spelled his name due to the fact that he, himself, did not spell it the same all of the time. Bryson has taken nothing and turned out a work, 196 pages of work, of something. Now if you think that is easy, try it some time.
This is not a scholarly dissertation (thank goodness) which tries to pass itself off as the beginning and end of all that was ever written about the life of Shakespeare. It is a short study of just what we do not know about him, which we find, is quite a lot! I picked up absolutely dozens and dozens of facts as to what I did not know, and until I read this book, did not realize I did not know. In addition to this I picked up some wonderful trivia (and some information that was not trivial at all) concerning the era in which Shakespeare wrote, if indeed, he wrote during that era. I had no idea of the words and phrases, which happen to number in the hundreds, which were introduced to the English Language via Shakespeare. As one reviewer has pointed out, this is really not a biography, but rather a history lesson, a lesson of little facts that you would not normally be exposed to. Bryson has done his home work and we have all benefitted from his seemingly endless curiosity.
Now for those folks who are Shakespearian scholars. This probably will not be all that much help to you; of course picking up the book, noting that it has only 196 pages, should pretty well tip you off to that fact pretty quickly. If it doesn't, perhaps you might want to find some other line of work. This is a readable book, an interesting book, written for those of us who have not made the study of Shakespeare a profession or made it an obsession, which ever the case may be. It is not a book that you can use as a substitute for a sleeping pill, as so many hard core books on this subject are. It is for those of us who are curious, and who want to know bits of this and pieces of this and that. I will say though, that by reading this work, I have gained even further appreciation for the work of Shakespeare, which says a lot, as I had already admired him greatly.
I did enjoy the last chapter or so, as it addresses the many theories of the many rather odd individuals who have been obsessed over the years, trying to prove that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, or that someone else wrote his writings. These nut jobs seemed to have started from the beginning. The neat thing about it is, as Bryson so well points out, we know even less of the basis of their theories than we know of Shakespeare. Some of them are pretty funny though and worth taking a look.
Bryson does have a low keyed sense of humor and this fact shines through on ever page of this work. His style is easy on the eye, and in this work, there are no pretentions. It is sort of what you read is what you get. I enjoyed this one front to back and feel much richer for having read it. I did give this one five stars as I truly enjoyed it and felt, for me, it was a very worthwile book. Others may disagree with this, but hey, they can write their own review.
Several reviewers have taken this book to task for what it is not. It is not a scholarly book and was not intended to be. It is part of the "Eminent Lives" series. The publishers tout the series as consisting of "succinct" essay-like books intended to be "short biographies for an age short on time." No book in the series (that I have seen) has any significant scholarly apparatus. They allow well-known writers to relate the basic facts of an "eminent" person's life and give their take on the person to the extent they think appropriate. They are like the serious essays you can find in magazines like the "New Yorker" but longer. This book fits the series's pattern.
The book relates all that is actually known about Shakespeare, points out the many things that are not known and touches on the major problem areas, including the authorship controversy. Like Jack Webb on the old "Dragnet" TV show, Bryson pretty much keeps to "just the facts" but does note many of the areas of speculation in which Shakespeare students routinely indulge. He does all this in a smooth and flowing prose and with energy and wit.
The book has no index, no scholarly footnotes and only a minimal bibliography of a few secondary sources. There is evidently little or no documentary research, although Bryson obviously read what books he should and interviewed a number of knowledgeable people for the book. He takes no position on any of the controversies except the question of authorship, on which he is a firm Stratfordian. The book is strictly about Shakespeare's life, however, and makes almost no effort to discuss the poems and plays as works of literature. Couldn't do that and keep it short.
This is an excellent book for someone who wants to begin to learn about Shakespeare's life and (to some extent) his times. And it is a fun fast read for those who want a handy and short summary of what is known and what some of the problems are.
A few years ago, as a companion piece to a series of study-guides to the plays of Shakespeare, I wrote a guide called "Shakespeare and His Times".
In it I explained that virtually nothing is really known about the Bard's life and proceeded to delineate that which was, in little more than a paragraph. Bill Bryson makes the same point at the outset of "Shakespeare: The World as Stage", and then, because he is the writer he is, takes close to 200 pages to cover it. One would think that 200 pages covering "nothing" would grow tedious. One would be wrong!!! (three exclamatio points, if you please.) So charmigly does Bryson write; so entertainingly does he explicate WHY nothing is known, and how to best understand that nothing, that the book is an unending source of knowledge and delight. ANY writer can write about SOMETHING. It takes the massive talents of the Thunderbolt Kid to write this well about nothing. He makes "Seinfeld" look loquacious.
Those who have read Bill Bryson's previously published A Short History of Nearly Everything already know that he has an apparently insatiable intellectual curiosity and derives great pleasure from sharing what he has learned. In A Short History, he explains why the human race may be the universe's "supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously." It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Bryson later set out in search of William Shakespeare, someone who "is at once the best known and least known of figures." To me, Bryson's quests for understanding "of nearly anything"become, for both him and his readers, adventures of discovery. That is certainly true of this, his most recent book, and yet....
As Bryson notes, Shakespeare (who never spelled his name the same way twice in the signatures that survive) remains "at once the best known and least known of figures" and that is one of the few conclusions that Bryson draws. What did Shakespeare look like? Almost immediately, Bryson acknowledges that those who wish to know "are in the curious position with William Shakespeare of having three likenesses from which all others are derived: two that aren't very good [Bryson explains why] by artists working years after his death and one that is rather more compelling as a portrait but that may well be of someone else altogether. 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." This is an example of Bryson at the peak of his game, addressing a basic issue, sharing what is (and isn't) known about it, and then moving on to another...and then another.
As historian George Steevens once observed, all that is known about Shakespeare "is contained within a few scanty facts: that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon, produced a family there, went to London, became an actor and writer, returned to Stratford, made a will, and died. That wasn't quite true then, and it is even less so now, but it is not all that far from the truth either." At an almost leisurely pace, Bryson works his way through a wealth of historical material, carefully constructing a frame-of-reference for those "few scanty facts." For example:
"After four hundred years of dedicated hunting, researchers have found about a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family - baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds, writs of attachment, court records (many court records - it was a litigious age), and so on. That's a good number as these things go, but deeds and bonds and other records are inevitably bloodless. They tell us a great deal about the business of a person's life, but almost nothing about the emotions of it."
"Nearly everyone agrees that William Shakespeare's career as a playwright began in about 1590, but there is much less agreement on which plays began it. Depending on whose authority you favor, Shakespeare's debut written offering might be any of at least eight works" and "arguments would run far deeper were it not for the existence of a small, plump [700-page] book written by one Francis Meres called Paladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury" and published in 1598. It would be of little (if any) interest were it not for "an immeasurably helpful passage" first noticed by scholars more than 200 years after Shakespeare's death, in 1616. Meres praises Shakespeare as being "most excellent among the English" in both comedy and tragedy and offers the first published mention of his plays by title.
In the last chapter, "Claimants," Bryson responds to an accusation - expressed in more than 5,000 books and many more articles -- that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone other than William Shakespeare. If not Shakespeare, who? Those most often suggested include Francis Bacon, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere), Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby. Bryson calmly rejects each of these nominees, for various reasons, noting that more than 50 candidates have been suggested as possible alternative Shakespeares, and then observes:
"The one thing all of the competing theories have in common is the conviction that William Shakespeare was in some way unsatisfactory as an author of brilliant plays. This really is 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. Shakespeare lacked a university education [such as it was then in the late-16th century], to be sure, but then so did Ben Jonson - a far more intellectual playwright - and no one ever suggests that Jonson was a fraud."
Bryson concludes this chapter and his book as follows: "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."
Earlier, I suggested that Bill Bryson possesses an apparently insatiable intellectual curiosity and derives great pleasure from sharing what he has learned in the various books he has written. His quests for gaining understanding "of nearly anything" become, for both him and his readers, adventures of discovery. That is certainly true of his biography of Shakespeare...or whoever he was.
on November 17, 2007
As an avid reader of Bryson and a scholar of Shakespeare, I was very eager to read Bill Bryson's recent biography of the Bard of Avon. In the last year, I have read 3 other biographies of Shakespeare as well as one about his contemporaries. I also visited Stratford and the Globe Theater in London last year. Bryson wrote this book with his usual humorous and conscise prose. It is clear-headed, without hype and the usual baloney found in works about Shakespeare. This book is straight-forward, well-researched, and "amazingly without error." So many biographies of Shakespeare are more a projection than an explorationg of a life of which we know very little. There are none of the usual "he probably did this," "he must have done that," "he surely did something else," which normally fluff out typical biographies of Shakespeare. He also successfully addresses the silly notion that somebody else wrote the plays, an issue which Bryson handles perfectly. This book should be placed in the most prominant spot in both the museum bookstore in Stratford as well as the replica Globe theater museum bookstore in London. It's the only biography worth reading. I cannot find fault with either Bryson's scholarship or his interpretation of Shakespeare's life. Thank God, he didn't try to embellish this book as so many others have done. Once again, he has earned my respect.
This is one volume in the series "Eminent Lives." After having read this book, I am interested in exploring this series further.
William Shakespeare, of course, was a great playwright, whether of comedy or tragedy, and a fine poet as well. Bill Bryson, the author of this slender volume, notes how little we actually know of Shakespeare, when he says (Page 7): ". . .all we know about Shakespeare is contained within a few scanty facts: that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, produced a family there, went to London, became an actor and writer, returned to Stratford, made a will, and died." After 400 years, the author observes, there are only about a hundred documents speaking to the Bard of Avon and his family.
The book begins by exploring what little is known about Shakespeare's early years (by the way, one cool point in this book is the multiple spellings of his name over time; Shakespeare himself spelled it differently at different points in time). The introductory comments also note something absolutely amazing: zillions of plays were written and performed in Shakespeare's time. Of the total number, only about 230 texts still exist--of which 15% are by Shakespeare, a stunning percentage. We know more about his work than any other playwright of the era.
The book is organized by time period. Chapter 2 examines the years from 1564-1585, Shakespeare's youth. The chapter begins with an effort to understand his father's life (John Shakespeare) as well as that of his mother (Mary Arden). We have little information on the Bard--his birth certificate, his marriage certificate (with Anne Hathaway), birth certificates for his children--during this period. From 1585 to 1592, Chapter 3 suggests, little is known about Shakespeare. Chapter 4 considers his early years in London. He began as an actor and turned, over time, into an author of plays. In 1592, he had even earned in a publication the scorn of a critic. By 1594, his theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, had become one of the major forces in theater, including leading actors of the day.
Subsequent chapters consider his plays, his business success (he did well as a joint owner of the troupe and the Globe Theater), his sonnets, what little we know of his family life (his son, Hamnet, died in his early youth). He was successful under Queen Elizabeth and, after her death, King James I, who viewed many of his performances. A number of contentious issues are addressed, including Shakespeare's sexuality, his relationship with his wife and family. There is even a brief description of the debates over whether Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him. Finally, the end game of his life. . . .
If one wishes a brief introduction to the life of Shakespeare (with a dash of wit thrown in by the author), this is a good place to start. Nicely written and well done!
Bill Bryson seems incapable of writing non-interesting books. He once again entertains and informs in his witty way with "Shakespeare - The World As Stage."
This is not a biography of the Bard; for as Bryson points out what we really know about William Shakespeare could fit the length of this Amazon review. What Bryson does is provide an excellent background piece on what little we do know of "the English Language's Greatest Writer" by exploring where he came from, what life was like generally in his time and how the theater and actor/writers worked as they entertained the masses in London and the countryside.
I find Bryson's tangents wonderfully informative and highly amusing. He is really defined by presenting fascinating nuggets and droll commentary in his works and he doesn't deviate from his platform here. The reader will learn of the number and examples of words the Bard introduced into the English language as well as turns of phrases that are his ("tower of strength" to list one). Errors Shakespeare made (yes, he was not immune from imperfection) as well as quick overviews of his work are also covered in as much as they may help describe the man. Digressions on other contemporary playwrights, the two monarchs in whose reigns he lived and worked, and various and sundry other notables who have at least a tangential relationship to the Bard, theater, politics and life in general in this period make this a broad work that interests by sampling from many characters.
Bryson does give excellent tidbit-treatment to Shakespeare's plays and his effect on the written language. He also does an excellent job of seeming to demolish all the leading candidates advanced to answer the fringe question of "Who Really Was Shakespeare" that has dogged the Bard's story for centuries.
This is a thin book and a quick read, Don't expect heavy analysis of King Lear or the Sonnets (excepting for as they relate to the titillating question of which team Shakespeare played for in his off hours), but this is a great overview of his known life and times and very entertaining.
I happened upon an audio version of Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As Stage a while back, and since I'm about to embark on teaching Shakespeare next year (I've always taught American literature), I thought that it would offer a nice way to brush up on my knowledge of Shakespeare and his Elizabethan world. It certainly did not fail me. Bryson's voice is intelligent and charming, bringing his unique journalistic skill to a task that is typically undertaken only by authors writing to a narrow, academic audience. I found Bryson's book to be an informative and engaging read that actually does seem to fill a gap in the vast world of literature produced on the great playwright.
Shakespeare: The World As Stage has a neatly focused objective. Bryson's purpose is not academic, but journalistic. He has set out to describe for a wide audience what is actually known about the life of Shakespeare and the odd ways that some of what we know has been discovered. All of what we actually know, however, doesn't amount to very much, and showing what we do know requires more than just documenting what artifacts we possess; it also entails untangling those facts from the large weave of speculation that has engulfed the author in the nearly four centuries since his death. Bryson does this all sensibly, and often wittily.
Scanning the reviews, it seems to me that there are two general objections to the book. Many seem disappointed that it's a straight-up journalistic work, without Bryson's entertaining person at its center. While it's true that it's not like Bryson's more famous books, I wouldn't fault it on that score. After all, Bryson has accomplished exactly what he set out to do with the book, and he has done the world a journalistic service in doing so. Others seem to object to the absence of scholarly precision and documentation. Bryson's choices, though, seem to me to be fully justified, considering his audience and purpose.
So, I consider Shakespeare: The World As Stage to be quite a success, an informative and entertaining read that I plan to use in the future.
on August 5, 2014
Another thoroughly delightful read from the inimitable Mr. Bryson. He begins by acknowledging that we know very little about Shakespeare himself - "researchers have found [only] about a hundred documents" that appear to relate to him, virtually all of them legal documents such as deeds & court records, & these are for the most part appallingly difficult to read, even for knowledgeable scholars. We can't be sure whether he wrote all of the plays attributed to him, let alone in what order he wrote them. He appears never to have signed his name the same way twice (not unusual in the Elizabethan era). We don't even know his exact date of birth (all we have is a baptismal record, & Shakespeare was born under the Julian calendar, so that April 23 - the traditional date of birth assigned to him - would actually be May 3 today). As a result, Bryson points out, "even the most careful biographers" have succumbed to the "urge to switch from subjunctive to indicative" (that is, from speculating that Shakespeare might have done this or that, to averring that he DID do this or that), or "simply surrendered themselves to their imaginations." Bryson himself yields here & there to the temptation to speculate - about family connections to traveling theatrical troupes, about how young William might have gotten the opportunity to join the Queen's Men, etc. But for the most part, he sticks to what we do know or can reasonably infer about Shakespeare's life & times. And that's what makes this book so entertaining. His description of 16th century London brings that crowded, dirty, brawling city to vivid life, from Whitehall Palace, "a 23-acre complex of royal apartments, offices, storehouses, cockpits, tennis courts, tiltyards ... [w]ith 1,500 rooms & a resident population of a thousand or so courtiers, servants bureaucrats & hangers-on"; to the Thames River (an open sewer that nevertheless teemed with fish - "on one memorable occasion, a whale nearly got caught between the arches of London Bridge"); to the old Saint Paul's Cathedral, which was frequently mobbed with "carpenters, bookbinders, scriveners, lawyers, haulers & others all [plying] their trades" as well as drunks & vagrants who used its corners as a public urinal, & "little boys [who] played ball games in the aisles until chased away." The book is crammed with sometimes disturbing, often hilarious details about contemporary fashions, religious issues, food & drink (we learn that "the ship that took the Puritan leader John Winthrop to New England carried him, ten thousand gallons of beer, & not much else"), laws (many of them absurd to us now, e.g., regulations prescribing who could wear & eat what, depending on social status), criminals, & popular entertainments (with special & affectionate attention to Elizabethan theater). But Bryson's subject is, of course, Shakespeare the man, & he gives the reader a surprising amount of fascinating & substantive information about him. We learn - I'm sure to the disappointment of scholars who have questioned how a trade-class youth from Stratford could possibly have received the kind of education & upbringing that are reflected in his plays - that Shakespeare's father was a man of some importance, serving in a number of municipal positions including, eventually, "high bailiff" (making him "mayor in all but name"). (Like many politicians today, John Shakespeare eventually got into trouble for shady dealings.) The local school was "of an unusually high standard"; its headmaster's salary was more than what was then paid to the headmaster at Eton, & the 3 masters (head teachers) at the school were all Oxford graduates. Young William would have been drilled in Latin & in rhetoric & literature (though not in history or geography, & Bryson points out that the plays reflect an ignorance of the latter). Bryson also shows us how Shakespeare the playwright - like his contemporaries - borrowed freely from the popular books, stories & poems of his day, & occasionally plagiarized outright ("'Julius Caesar' & 'Antony & Cleopatra' both contain considerable passages taken with only scant alteration from [another author's] translation of Plutarch," to give just one example). Furthermore, Shakespeare's much-vaunted vast vocabulary comprised only about 20,000 words (the average modern American knows about 50,000, although we have a lot of words that didn't exist in Shakespeare's day). Of course, Shakespeare did more with those words than anyone before or (arguably) since. But the English language itself was at that time undergoing a Renaissance - Bryson says that "some 12,000 words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 & 1650 ... & old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before." (Shakespeare invented many of them.) In other words (so to speak), Shakespeare lived in the best possible time & place for someone with an innate love of wordplay. Other reviewers have complained that this book doesn't tell us anything new about Shakespeare (& inevitably, a few have seized on it as an opportunity to put forward their own theories about who "really" wrote the plays & sonnets - theories which Bryson effectively demolishes). But never mind that. If you're interested in the plays themselves, the man who unquestionably wrote them, & the extraordinary age that produced them, this book is a fine & entertaining place to start.