Book Chatter: Shakespeare: The World as Stage

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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 CountryOr 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.

Australia: Where you teach your children early that sharks are playthings.

Australia: Where you teach your children early that sharks are playthings.

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.

  1. 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.

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    Case in point: Did the theatres of Philip Massinger, Thomas Kyd, or Aphra Behn get resurrected?

  2. 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.

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Photo credits: Cover image from Better World Books; shark sculpture from sandid and Globe performance from tpsdave on Pixabay.

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Book Chatter: Notes from a Small Island

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Summer being what it is (to wit, comparatively warmer and drier), no doubt you’re planning on taking a vacation in the next couple of months. Maybe you’re heading to the beach. Maybe you’re going abroad. Maybe you’re attending a family reunion on a nuclear submarine and staging a singalong version of The Sound of Music at 900 feet.

"Dad! That's your cue!"

“Oh, Dad, I’m so glad we found you! You’re playing the Reverend Mother, remember? Climb Every Mountain is up next — hurry and get your wimple.”

For many people, vacations are a chance to explore a culture or an area they’ve always loved. And for many of those people, actually arriving in that area and experiencing that culture firsthand can be a bit of a shock.

For example, I grew up in a popular tourist town on the beach. Every summer, we locals would have a great time laughing at the tourists who showed up on the beach with their bikinis and sunscreen, not realizing that our beach is not the kind of beach where one basks in the sun, drinking appletinis and exchanging flirtatious glances with lifeguards. Our beach is more of a place where one tests out the wind-buffering capacity of new ski gear. My dad sometimes says that the town’s most lucrative industry is selling sweatshirts to optimistic tourists.

But no matter how rude an awakening those tourists get when they see our fog and drizzle, many of them keep coming back again and again. It’s like they’ve learned that their ideal beach town is fictional, but they’ve found something even better in its place.

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is like that discovery. As he narrates in the book, Bryson, an American, stopped in England on his way home from a European jaunt and ended up getting a job in a mental hospital there, where he met his future wife.  Nearly two decades later, he and his family decided to move back to the U.S. — but not before Bryson toured the width and breadth of England one last time, saying farewell everything he loved (and hated) about the country.

If you’d like to visit England, Notes from a Small Island is a good crash course in the quiet nooks and crannies of the nation. If you’ve already spent some time there, Notes will remind you of the endearing (and maddening) details you’ve forgotten. And for all readers, Bryson will inspire and delight as he broaches the questions of belonging and adapting with a level of humor many travel writers lack.

What are your travel plans for this summer? Is it a new destination for you, or an old favourite?

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Just a short reminder — the game’s still on for our Harry Potter appreciation week! Post links to your HP-inspired essays, artwork, music, recipes, and crochet patterns, and they’ll be eligible for featuring on this blog!

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; submarine interior from tpsdave at Pixabay.