Jeanette "Astute Crabbist"'s Reviews > Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
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Feb 11, 11

bookshelves: history, nonfiction, biography-memoir
Read in February, 2011

Shakespeare's biography is sketchy, and ever thus it shall remain. This little book represents Bill Bryson's attempt to collect what scant information exists, and to debunk a few spurious claims. I can't say I know much more about Sweet Will now than I did before reading the book, but Bryson is not to blame. People didn't reliably keep records 400 years ago. There were no standardized spellings for English words, so a lot of what was written down is indecipherable. Furthermore, no one anticipated Shakespeare's enduring popularity, so they weren't clamoring to write his biography while he was still alive. In fact, "playwriting was not an esteemed profession, and its practice, however accomplished, gained one little critical respect."

It's a wonder Will's works survived at all. If not for the dedicated efforts of John Heminges and Henry Condell in compiling the First Folio, eighteen of Shakespeare's plays would probably have been lost to us. Imagine our world without Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, and a dozen others. It's our good fortune that Heminges and Condell weren't procrastinators. Both men were dead by 1630, only seven years after the First Folio was published.

Bryson succeeds admirably in providing a context for Shakespeare's life and works. He describes what was happening in England throughout The Bard's lifetime, and how those events and attitudes might have shaped his choices and influenced his writing. For instance, the issue of Queen Elizabeth's succession was a national preoccupation for much of Shakespeare's life. It's no surprise, then, that one quarter of his plays deal with questions of royal succession.

Don't be put off by my three-star rating. I'm not enough of a snob to think of 3 stars as a "low" rating. It means "I liked it." Nothing more, nothing less. I've always found English history to be rather dry, but I'm glad I read the book. It will add a new layer of subtext to my future reading of Shakespeare's works. Just knowing that audience members were sometimes allowed to sit on the stage during a performance alters my perspective. How distracting that must have been for the actors! Imagine allowing that on Broadway.

My favorite chapter was the last one, entitled "Claimants," in which the author presents an array of stunningly ridiculous and insupportable claims regarding the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Bryson gave free rein to his famous wit in this chapter. I found myself laughing hysterically at some of his observations. Regarding the popular claim that Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's works, Bryson dryly concedes that Marlowe "had the requisite talent, and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work." (Italics mine.)

After handily dismissing all the myths for lack of evidence, Bryson concludes:
"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."

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Reading Progress

02/03/2011 page 15
7.0% "This has to be a first. I'm reading three nonfiction books and no novels!"
02/06/2011 page 96
46.0% "This is not particularly gripping, but it does explain a lot about why Shakespeare wrote his plays the way he did."

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Rachel (new)

Rachel I think Shakespeare had help from aliens!! ;-)


Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" I can respect your need to believe that. :D :D


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