“(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
No matter where on the planet you're from, it seems that there is at least one figure from the early Renaissance period (1400-1600 AD) who's had a huge and profound impact on your society's culture ever since: here in the English-speaking world, for example, that would be playwright and poet William Shakespeare, and in fact it's guessed that a huge majority of all new novels and movies coming out in English these days are based or inspired in one way or another on something from "The Bard"s old works. But that's the ultimate irony about Shakespeare; that although he is one of the only Elizabethan playwrights in history to have almost all his works preserved and reproduced over the ages (a main factor behind him being as influential as he now is), hardly any facts about the man himself exist, and in fact apart from his creative writing you would scarcely even know he was a physical human who actually once lived. Over the centuries, then, it has led to wild speculation about Shakespeare's life on the part of thousands, and an entire wing of academic study about the man so in the center of all Western artistic thought.
So for those like me who hardly know anything about the subject, Bill Bryson's new book Shakespeare: The World as Stage is going to be a godsend; it is a tight, funny 200-page overview of what exactly we factually know about the man and what we don't, peppered with a lot of anecdotes about the various crackpots over the years who have gotten obsessed with the question. And in fact this is the entire reason for the book to exist in the first place, is to give a short and tidy overview of a famous person's life; it is in fact the latest installment of James Atlas' "Eminent Lives" series, where for years he's been asking intriguing writers in other fields to pen short accessible works about various famous thinkers in history. For example, for those who didn't know, Bryson himself is mostly known in the publishing world for extremely sharp, funny and bitter travelogues; and here he puts that style to good use, taking us from one interesting historical and academic site to the next, as he with us unravels the mystery of this playwright we know so little about.
In fact, that's about the only big drawback to this book as well, if you want to look at it that way; that a 200-page manuscript simply isn't enough to fully get into the mysteries behind Shakespeare and his work, and that the main enjoyment Bryson's book contains is with all the astounding trivia-style facts he rattles off throughout. (Did you know that there are only fourteen words in existence actually written in Shakespeare's hand? That of 3,000 plays written in the Elizabethan Era, we only have printed copies of 200 of them, with nearly 40 of them being from Shakespeare himself? That his collected work contains 884,647 words, 15,785 question marks, and 10 instances of the term "dunghill?") As far as I'm concerned, though, that's what's to like about this book, not dislike; it's no scholarly treatise by any means, but Bryson's Shakespeare is definitely a pleasant little unintimidating ladder into the endless underground cavern which is Shakespearean study. And given that other titles in this series deal with such other fascinating characters from history as Thomas Jefferson, Muhammad, and Machiavelli, I'm also looking forward to reading more.
Out of 10: 9.2”
“ “...at once the best known and least known of figures”
This slender edition may not be the best Bill Bryson has ever written and is definitely not a book to base a thesis on. But for someone, like myself, who knows the name Shakespeare (never spelt the same way twice!) from his plays and Sonnets this book is an interesting read with the usual touch of Bryson wit.
Bryson expand on the little we know of Shakespeare, remarking that he is “at once the best known and least known of figures". We don’t even know what he looked like as the three likenesses we have are so different. Even so, Bryson records everything that is known about the Bard, from the earliest scholars to the esteemed ones today, including the scholars like Delia Bacon, who tried to prove some one other than Shakespeare wrote his works.
Also he gives us a setting for the man – Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Although Shakespeare is usually associated with the Elizabethan period, Bill Bryson points out that the majority of his play writing career takes place after her death. We learn about the theatrical scene and the culture in London at the time.
Bryson deftly weaves humor and scant facts to tell Shakespeare's story that began in the sixteenth century and is still playing out today.”
“Shows you how little we really know about Shakespeare...and how much we surprisingly know about one individual from court documents in a litiguous age. It's not only about Shakespeare but the London he lived in and his fellow playwrights lives and scandals. Any amateur historian would love this book...especially reading about the nutcases who became obsessed with Shakespeare and the odd lengths they went to to find out "the truth."”Erica L wrote this review Friday, February 29, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“A brief but informative tour through the life and times of Shakespeare and as you would expect from Bryson, entertaining to read. At times it didn't go into much detail as I'd have liked, but it does provide an overall picture of what is known of the man and also what is not. I read this on holiday to counter balance my dose of fiction, for this it was just right.”John U wrote this review Sunday, February 10, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“A good look into a this famous man and how little we know about his life. Very informative and interesting and I plan to read it again in the future.”Lori H wrote this review Sunday, February 10, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Better than most, worse than some - but a good read nonetheless.”Aaron K wrote this review Thursday, January 24, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Okay... as far as a book on Shakespeare, but a bit disappointing as far as a book from Bryson. I think he writes best about what he knows - trips, life etc. Those are his most entertaining and informative books. There are so many books on Shakespeare that this seems a bit redundant - esp. since there's so little actual material about him. Can we now have another "Walk Through the Woods" ? Another "Life & Times of the Thunderbolt kid"?”nvadablake wrote this review Wednesday, January 23, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“An easy-to-read, straightforward biography, especially good for people who didn't know a lot about Shakespeare to start with, but a few new things even for a Shakespeare fan of very long-standing. No gimmicks and not very much that was fresh to me, but a relaxing read.”Gill O wrote this review Monday, January 7, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“So much conjecture about Shakespeare's life, his oeuvre, and whether he really did write all those famous works. Bryson cuts through it all to tell us how little we really do know. Lots to learn about Elizabethan England and the beginning of the reign of James I. Excellent final, definitive chapter about the naysayers regarding Shakespeare's authenticity. ”Ray M wrote this review Friday, January 4, 2008. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“I'm not a Shakespeare fan, despite (or perhaps because of) having been a drama major. I confess to liking Macbeth, and I even kind of like Hamlet, though that may be more due to having been involved with a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I loathe Romeo and Juliet. So it was Bryson's name alone that interested me in reading a book about Shakespeare. It turned out to be quite an interesting read, and Bryson manages to tell Shakespeare's story by revealing what we DON'T know about the man. Informative bits about Elizabethan London mixed with Bryson's gift for humorous understatement made this a book I might actually consider reading a second time!”londonpenguin wrote this review Friday, December 14, 2007. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No