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.