You might know Bill Bryson as the guy who wrote A Walk in the Woods, the tale of his romp along part of the Appalachian Trail (if any part of the AT can be accurately called a romp). You might have run across his alternately fascinating, horrifying, and hilarious collection of notes from Australia, In a Sunburned Country. Or you might know him from a book previously reviewed on this site, the saga of his England-wide trip down memory lane relayed in Notes from a Small Island.
But no matter where you know him from, you know that Bryson’s writing is instantly engaging: sidesplitting in one breath and thought-provoking in the next; well researched; well thought out; and always, always well phrased. As you might expect from books about daunting journeys and bizarre lands, Bryson excels at tackling subjects that tend towards the extraordinary.
So it makes sense that sometime before 2007, Bryson decided to take on yet another extraordinary subject: William Shakespeare himself. In Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bryson gives a brief overview of the Bard’s life and times. And I do mean brief: Clocking in at 196 pages (at least in my 2007 paperback edition), Shakespeare: The World as Stage makes for a quick but satisfying read.
There are many things I like about this book, but in the interests of keeping the review shorter than the book, I’ll limit myself to two.
- Many biographers try to sell their books through sheer confidence: claiming previously unplumbed sources, new insights, groundbreaking evidence, and so forth. Bryson doesn’t claim any of that. He states straight off that we don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare, and what we do know is often lacking crucial context. He acknowledges many of the big rumours and theories about Shakespeare’s life (for example, “He was secretly Catholic!!!”), but then he calmly lays out the reasons why each theory could and could not be true. It isn’t often that you see this kind of honest uncertainty in a writer, much less in a biographer, and it’s very refreshing — especially with a figure as hyped as Shakespeare.
- As exhibited by the 2011 film Anonymous, there exists a small but vocal collection of critics who protest that “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare”, but was actually Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, William Stanley, or another of nearly fifty candidates, depending on who you ask and which evidence they choose to highlight (and, in turn, which evidence they choose to ignore). Bryson spends the last chapter discussing these various theories, and as a no-nonsense Stratfordian, I appreciated his tone in this section, as well as the polite snarkiness of his conclusion:
In short it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted — to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward. […] One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratford enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, four hundred years after it was perpetrated.
So this Christmas, if you’re looking for a good stocking-stuffer for that drama or literature nut in your life, consider Shakespeare: The World as Stage. That’s how it came into my life, and I’ve always been glad it did.