Shakespeare: the World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Released: November 2007
Publisher: Harper Collins
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Synopsis: At first glance, Bill Bryson seems an odd choice to write this addition to the Eminent Lives series.
The author of ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’ isn’t, after all, a Shakespeare scholar, a playwright, or even a biographer.
Reading ‘Shakespeare The World As Stage’, however, one gets the sense that this eclectic Iowan is exactly the type of person the Bard himself would have selected for the task.
The man who gave us ‘The Mother Tongue’ and ‘A Walk in the Woods’ approaches Shakespeare with the same freedom of spirit and curiosity that made those books such reader favorites. A refreshing take on an elusive literary master.
If you’re not a fan of biographies, I challenge you to read Shakespeare by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s witty writing makes this book a fun and fast read. Well, that and the fact this book is less than 200 pages long. It may seem strange that a biography on one of the world’s greatest playwrights is so short; however, there are few records about Shakespeare and how he lived his life, and Bryson really emphasizes this point. He writes, “We are lucky to know as much as we do. Shakespeare was born just at the time when records were first being kept with some fidelity”.
Bryson explores the handful of times “Shakespeare” (or “Shakp” or “Shaksper” or “Shakspe” etc.) pops up in Elizabethan records. These records are legal records regarding fines owed, land ownership, or wills as well as the occasional dedication in pamphlets and Quatro editions of his plays. But, a name, a date, and a place hardly shine insight onto a person’s life. For the most part, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson is book filled with well-drawn assumptions rather than deeply rooted facts about the playwright’s life. For example, there is actually no record of Shakespeare ever attending school, yet it would be hard to believe that someone with a great control over the English language never received any formal education. So, Bryson shows what Shakespeare’s life as a grammar school student was probably like from the subjects he probably studied (reading, writing, reciting Latin) to what discipline was probably like (Bryson writes, “A standard part of a teacher’s training…was how to give a flogging”).
It doesn’t stop there of course. Bryson discusses how Shakespeare would have first gotten involved in both performing and writing plays. He discusses the famed Globe Theater, and how plays would have been performed there. He discusses Shakespeare’s relationship with wife, Anne Hathaway, from why they may have married and why Shakespeare only left her his “second best bed” in his will. Bryson also dives into a handful of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, although these chapters tend to read dryly compared to the chapters about Shakespeare’s lifestyle. And, no biography of Shakespeare is complete without a chapter that delves into the controversy over whether or not Shakespeare was really the author of the famous plays and sonnets. Some scholar’s declarations of who they believe to be the “real” Shakespeare may surprise you!
Interestingly, the parts of the book that interested me the most were the parts that focused the least on Shakespeare. I enjoyed reading about the tension between the Catholics and the Protestants during Shakespeare’s life. And I found Bryson’s descriptions of the layout of London as well as city life so vivid. Both of these set the tone, the scene for Shakespeare’s life and his plays.
My biggest complaint about this book is about the number of “five-point” vocabulary words Bryson used so frequently. I am glad I read this book on my Nook, which has a built-in dictionary. It made looking up handfuls of words every few paragraphs easy. If I owned a tangible copy of this book, I would have probably been annoyed by how often I would have to put the book down to leaf through a dictionary.
I enjoyed this book, but it didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know (okay, maybe a few vocabulary words). But that’s because I’ve had the pleasure of taking two classes about Shakespeare– one in high school and one in college. It is good to know that neither of my teachers led me astray! Still, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson is worlds more interesting than the textbook excerpts I read in either of those classes. Why couldn’t my teachers assign this book instead?