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Book Review: Shakespeare – The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

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I just finished an incredibly interesting book about Shakespeare by – surprisingly – Bill Bryson. I expected Bryson to use his characteristic wit to make his point about Shakespeare, and I wasn't disappointed, but I also found Shakespeare – The World as Stage to be a scholarly work that proves an intimate knowledge and understanding of all the many books and analyses of the bard over the years, and uses that to create a vivid picture of the man. Well, it might be more correct to say of his time, because so little is known about Shakespeare himself, that almost anything we say about him as a person could be called pure conjecture.

In a way, I quite like that, because I really respect the bard and consider his works seminal – as do millions of people around the world – and to find out that in reality he was a pompous popinjay, dirty and unshaven, stingy and rude and money-grubbing, churning out plays for a profit motive would have quite destroyed my pleasure. Somehow we human beings like making Gods of our accomplished and finding out the God has feet of clay mars the accomplishments themselves.

So basically all we know is when he died, probably when he was born and the date of his marriage. Even all the words of the plays may not be the ones that he wrote because editorial ethics and proof-reading were conspicuous by their absence. Many later editors who put together his works apparently deleted or changed whatever they didn't approve of or understand, and some of the purported words from his plays have still not been deciphered. 

However, what does come through is that it was a strange and complex world of the theatre that Shakespeare inhabited. Theatres were placed outside the city, along with 'noisome' industries like dyeing and tanning of leather ( interesting but yucky fact – tanners used to soak leather in dogpuddy to soften it!), and the city gates were closed at dusk, which in winter fell at about 4 pm, and were only reopened the next morning. So god alone knows how people got to the theatre and how they got back home.

Plays used to go on for 4-5 hours, with breaks between the acts to trip the lights in the theatre. There was no set pattern as to how many scenes in an act or how many acts in a play. In order to make money, the theatre needed to be full day after day, so the play enacted changed almost daily, and the actors used to have to memorise parts from several plays at the same time. Moreover, due to the limited number of actors and the pay available for them, each actor used to play multiple roles within the same play ("…and one man in his time plays many parts…").

One of the factors that enabled the prolificity of playwrights was the constant demand for new material with which to woo back the audience. Given the minuscule pay that most people got, it's a wonder that so many of them seem to have thronged the theaters, but a rough calculation indicates that something like 50 million people – ten times the population of England – saw plays in a span of two years.

Shakespeare was not by any means a lauded man in his own lifetime – that was given more to Christopher Marlowe ( played unforgettably by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love), and to a host of other writers including Fletcher and Beaumont, many of whom are obscure today or known only to scholars. However, he was an incredibly inventive genius who came up with thousands of phrases which now are so often used as to have become cliches – "one fell swoop" or "vanish into thin air", for example. He also excelled at creating words – like "hereditary" or "critical", for example – and more than 800 of them are still in use and in the Oxford dictionary.

The book is well-writted, vivid and fast-paced. It very quickly takes you through the years that Shakespeare has inhabited and points out the unnerving lack of factual, verified material about the man known as English literature's genius. And it cobbles together the few facts from a host of sources and yet coherently knits them together to paint a picture( and I know there are 3 mixed metaphors in that sentence). So you come away with an interesting insight into the times that the man lived in, while having reached no further in undertsanding the man himself. Which, as I said earlier, is probably all the better – now we're free to imagine him as the idealistic young lover played by Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love.

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