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.