The author has written a slim and cautionary book concerning what is factually known about William Shakespeare, including a critical look at opinions regarding various aspects of his life that have been perpetrated based on either questionable extrapolations or, worse, wishful or agenda-driven thinking. Only church documents, legal proceedings, and a few mentions by contemporaries give small hints as to his affairs. There are not even unambiguous details concerning his appearance. As the author states, Shakespeare left behind no written documents; only his signature appears a few times. One can only speculate from his poems and plays as to his basic thinking and personality. A written record of his plays exists primarily due to the very diligent efforts of two of his fellow troupe members who compiled most of his plays for publication in 1623, seven years after his death. Even they had to rely upon memory and variety of fragmentary remnants of his work, producing approximations in some cases.
The author examines Shakespeare in the context of the late sixteenth century during the reign of Elizabeth, an unusually tolerant monarch for the times, especially considering that England had transformed from being Catholic to Protestant over the last half of the 1500s. Although theaters and the production of plays flowered during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, the times were harsh. Disease, especially plagues, and filth were rampant. Plagues closed theaters for a year or two most every decade. The openness of theater attendance scarcely concealed a highly stratified society as indicated by sumptuary laws regarding clothing, regulations concerning who could eat what, and the ability to pay fines for avoiding Anglican church attendance. Even general movement was restricted with the locking of London’s gates and the forbidding of travel at night. The author sprinkles in a few interesting bits like the desirability of having blackened teeth from massive sugar consumption, the bleaching of skin by rich women, or the fact, in these highly religious times, that forty percent of brides were pregnant at the time of marriage.
This book really makes little effort at evaluating individual works of Shakespeare, be it plays, sonnets, or narrative poems. It’s really not even known specifically when and in what order most of his work was produced or, in a few cases, if different titles refer to the same piece. The author notes that of 230 plays that have survived from that era, fifteen percent of those are Shakespeare’s, a very fortunate situation. In a time in which printed materials became far more available piquing interest in written words, Shakespeare was quite an innovator in the use of language. He seems to have been the first user of over 2000 words that are now part of the English language, as well as the coiner of numerous phrases that are widely used today. Interestingly, apparently lifting plot ideas and even entire passages from other author’s plays was entirely acceptable in that time.
Perhaps this book does fill a needed void. Separation of facts, though certainly few in number, from speculation is not to be sneezed at. Furthermore, it shows Shakespeare was not infallible. He could write totally incomprehensible passages; he did get his geography mixed up; and anachronisms are found in many of his plays. The book gives some factual perspective on one of the greatest writers in English language history, who benefited from living and working in an era of creativity that lasted only a few decades.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (4 of 12 readers found this comment helpful)
A well-researched, well-written journey through Shakespeare's England. And who better as your affable guide than Bill Bryson? This slim volume is a perfect stocking stuffer.
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Considering the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about Shakespeare, relatively little is known about the man himself. In the absence of much documentation about his life, we have the plays and poetry he wrote. In this addition to the Eminent Lives series, bestselling author Bryson (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) does what he does best: marshaling the usual little facts that others might overlook — for example, that in Shakespeare's day perhaps 40% of women were pregnant when they got married — to paint a portrait of the world in which the Bard lived and prospered. Bryson's curiosity serves him well, as he delves into subjects as diverse as the reliability of the extant images of Shakespeare, a brief history of the theater in England and the continuing debates about whether William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon really wrote Shakespeare's works. Bryson is a pleasant and funny guide to a subject at once overexposed and elusive — as Bryson puts it, 'he is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron — forever there and not there.'" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Kirkus Reviews,
"[Bryson] makes so much of the fact that so much has been made from the singularly few known facts of the Bard's life that one might say this thin volume's raison d'etre is to identify the many paradoxes surrounding all things Shakespeare."
"[Bryson] does the job quite wonderfully by sticking to the facts about Shakespeare's life....Bryson splendidly concludes a splendid book by demolishing the claims for [Shakespeare's authorship by] Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford, and all."
by San Antonio Express-News,
"In 196 engaging pages, Bryson accomplishes quite a bit. He clearly delineates what can be known from the small amount of documentation and what has been made up and blown up from thin air."
by Philadelphia Inquirer,
"Bryson's unassuming and enjoyable survey is a useful introduction that students and playgoers will find handy. It is the work of a man who clearly loves Shakespeare and is bold enough to hold the conviction...that he actually wrote the immortal texts that bear his name."
by Hartford Courant,
"Bryson's is an accessible and lighthearted look at the Bard of Avon....Yet his lighthearted erudition makes reading this book a page-turning delight. Shakespeare 'is at once the best known and least known of figures,' and Bill Bryson has entertainingly explored that contradiction."
New York Times bestselling author Bryson explores the life and works of Shakespeare in an entertaining and erudite biography. Crafted as a travelogue of sorts, the book includes Bryson's conversations with those who know the Bard best — Shakespearean actors and academics.
In this new installment in the critically acclaimed Eminent Lives series, Bryson explores the life and work of Shakespeare in a typically Brysonian fashion. That is to say, he has crafted a travelogue of sorts, narrating his quest for the Bard.
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and eBooks — here at Powells.com.