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

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At first blush, Bill Bryson wouldn’t be my go-to Shakespearean scholar. Then again, as Shakespeare himself seemed to prove, good writing is good writing, no matter where or how it appears. In Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bryson presents a compact and persuasive biography of our language’s most famous and elusive writer.

Aye, and there's the rub with any Shakespeare biography. Everyone thinks they know the Bard, but they really only know what he wrote, not who he is. Consider what Bryson points out in his first chapter, that we only have six copies of Shakespeare's signature. Six! We're talking about one of the greatest English writers ever and there are only a half dozen instances of his name written in his own hand. That strikes me as a tremendously small thing. In fact, for a man who made his living through words, there is remarkably little of his own writing which has survived the four centuries since his death. That scarcity sums up what we know of his life as well. As famous as he has become, even as famous as he was at the time, we really and truly "know" nothing. The space that leaves for speculation, however, makes for some fantastic stories.

Chapter Two, "The Early Years," covers the religious/political turmoil which defined England in the late 16th century. There is also a recounting of John Shakespeare (Will's father), the town of Stratford, and the confusion surrounding Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway. Chapter Three, "The Lost Years," tackles the gaping period of 1585-1592, during which Shakespeare drops off the map. Rather than try and pin him down through a series of intellectual leaps, however, Bryson basically divides the section in two. In the first half he describes what it would have been like to live in London–where we know Will ends up–and in the second half he lightly touches on some of the theories surrounding Shakespeare's whereabouts. There is a bit of intrigue here, as stories involving Catholic spies and possible aliases are thrown about. It is brought to an end, though, where Will's life picks up (at least as far as the evidence is concerned): in London, just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

We know more about Shakespeare's working, adult life than any other period, largely because we finally know where he was. There are records of him in parish registries, on contracts and cast list, and even in court cases. That these things exist at all is mostly due to the Elizabethan police state, which kept copious amounts of paperwork on its own citizens. Through these middle chapters, Bryson is still circling around the Bard, talking as much about the general theatrical life of Renaissance London as anything else. All the same, we start to feel a little closer to Shakespeare the man knowing for sure some of the places he lived and worked.

The plays offer probably the best avenue for getting to know their writer, and Bryson returns to them again and again as he charts Will's biography. Bryson doesn't enter into much critical analysis when it comes to the works, although there is no doubt that he is a stalwart Shakespearean defender. When discussing the fact that many Renaissance plays were copied from earlier source material, he says "What Shakespeare did, of course, was to take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often, greatness. Before he reworked it Othello was insipid melodrama." He stops short, however, of treating the First Folio as gospel truth. In the same chapter as the quote above, Bryson points out some instances of Shakespeare either being lazy or getting things flat wrong: "He has Egyptians playing billiards and introduces the clock to Caesar's Rome 1,400 years before the first mechanical tick was heard there."

In the final chapter, "Claimants," Bryson addresses the question of Shakespeare's authorship and identity. He covers a whole slew of theories which maintain that William Shakespeare, the man born in 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon, did not write the plays attributed to him. The most entertaining by far (and the earliest, according to Bryson) was put forth by Delia Bacon. For whatever reason this Connecticut spinster became convinced of two things. One, that she was related to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, and two, that Francis Bacon was actually Shakespeare. The book which resulted from her research and theories was "vast, unreadable, and odd in almost every way. For one thing, not once in its almost 675 densely printed pages did it actually mention Francis Bacon." Bryson goes on to poke holes in other anti-Stratfordian theories which have been tossed out over the years, maintaining that each one "involves manipulative scholarships or sweeping misstatements of fact."

While it is a slim volume, it is also a convincing one. I have never been one to care much about who Shakespeare may have been, or how he came by the prodigious knowledge apparently needed to write his plays. In the end, even if we were to find the ultimate answer tomorrow, it wouldn't change the words on the page. Bryson seems cognizant of this, but also wants his readers to believe, as he does, that Shakespeare did exist and was undoubtedly a genius. Shakespeare: The World as Stage is a great primer on the life and times of England's favorite literary son from a great American writer. It has the easy, entertaining style characteristic of a Bill Bryson book, and, at only 196 pages, leaves me wondering what longer biographies could possibly add.

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