Shakespeare: The World as Stage Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year: 2007
Pages: 208

Let me first say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am absolutely crazy about Bill Bryson. Really, the man can do no wrong. I think perhaps the worst thing I’ve ever said about his books is that his very first one was kind of dry. I therefore look forward to each new Bryson release with a fervor most people save for Harry Potter.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage is a short book, written as a (sort-of) one off project for Bryson. The book is one in a series of brief biographies1. Luckily, it’s not as short Bryson’s African Diary, but I was disappointed nonetheless, not by the quality of the book, but by my selfish desire for an endless amount of Bryson’s prose.

Bryson does manage to pack his 200 pages with excellent material, however. Writing a biography about Shakespeare is a difficult process, because despite being one of the most revered authors in the English language, he is shrouded in mystery, his legacy built by a canon of plays and poetry and piecemeal legal documents and snippets of text. If you were to play a drinking game wherein you did a shot every time Bryson uses phrases like “We can’t know for certain” or “It’s impossible to know,” you’d be comatose by the end of the book. Yet, as Bryson points out early on, we know more about Shakespeare than any other English playwright of that era. Much like I thirst for new Bryson material, so society at large thirsts for information about this demigod of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama.

Given the relative paucity of direct historical data about Shakespeare, much of Bryson’s biography is told with context: he talks about the era, and the places where Shakespeare would have likely been. He talks about the vagaries of playwriting and performance; he talks about Shakespeare’s father John, and Shakespeare’s various and sundry relatives. He also talks about what others of the time had to say about Shakespeare. He even, ironically enough, transmits a great deal of information about the lack of information about Shakespeare.

Finally, and with great gusto, Bryson deals with the conspiracy theorists: those that think Francis Bacon is Shakespeare, or that Ben Jonson is Shakespeare. Or that a slew of different people are Shakespeare. The author comes down hard on the conservative side, insisting that despite the many holes in our history of Shakespeare, there’s no convincing evidence for most of the marginal theories about his life. The truth is simply that Shakespeare was an exceptional writer that left us very little about himself.

Bryson does all this without fawning or obseqious language; he manages his trademark blend of anecdote and information. Like every other Bryson book, this one is fantastic and you’re a horrible person if you don’t read it.

  1. Eminent Lives, by Harper Collins. Notably, the series also includes Christopher Hitchens’ biography of Thomas Jefferson[]
§1938 · December 4, 2007 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

9 Comments to “Shakespeare: The World as Stage”

  1. Jamie says:

    I’m trying furiously to get through the stack of backlogged books on my nightstand so I can get to this one. I recently discovered Bryson a couple of years ago and have been working my way through all his stuff.

  2. Lina says:

    Oh, yay, I’m glad you liked it.

    The most fascinating thing I got out of it is something that Bryson didn’t really push but which dawned on me before he even brought it up: that Shakespeare was likely gay! I’ve read and seen so many of his plays (most not by choice, I must admit), but I’ve never researched Shakespeare the man. And if I had, I guess I would’ve come across the suspicious suspicions raised by the sonnets, but it seems like it’s still just too controversial an idea for people to accept even now, because to me, someone who has no negative reaction to the idea, it seems OBVIOUS that he was gay, not merely a possibility. Not only did the sonnets provide proof, more or less, but like I said, it just makes sense given everything else about his life (his wife, his colleagues, his profession, etc).

  3. Lina says:

    Urgh, will you edit suspicious to say suspicions?

  4. Ben says:

    Well, bisexual is probably more accurate. Just like the Greco-Roman tradition. I’ve always heard about the “Shakespeare was gay” thing, but it’s not the sort of thing that they usually bring up in the classroom. This is the first time I’ve ever read anything that said, in essence, “Well, yeah, he was gay.”

  5. Lina says:

    Bisexual because he married and had children with a woman? Don’t you think that was more likely because he was expected to do so? (And it happened at an age when he was probably too young to have embraced his sexuality, even if he had an inkling about it.)

  6. Ben says:

    Well, bisexual because not everything he wrote was homosexual in nature. Wouldn’t it technically be a requirement in order to successfully copulate with a woman, anyway?

  7. Lina says:

    What he wrote for public consumption had to be from a heterosexual perspective, just as it does today. So I think only his private writings can give any indication of his true leanings, and those were GAY GAY GAY, lol.

    And I suppose this just comes down to a semantical argument, but I’ve of the opinion that which gender one has sex with is not the real indicator of one’s sexual orientation, but rather which gender one has pitterpattery, loveydovey feelings for.

  8. Lina says:

    Hey, no fair, you got to edit out your mistake, but I’ve just made another one. :p

  9. Ben says:

    Being admin has its privileges.

    I guess I’m used to thinking along a Kinsey continuum. I’ll grant you than Shakespeare was in all likelihood more gay than not, but like generations of men before him, it wasn’t quite so black and white.

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