SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS STAGE
By Bill Bryson
Atlas/HarperCollins, 199 pages, $19.95
According to Bill Bryson, “The amount of Shakespearean ink, grossly measured, is almost ludicrous. … The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., contains about seven thousand works on Shakespeare—twenty years’ worth of reading if read at the rate of one a day.” Yet here’s another, written by Mr. Bryson himself, “not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare,” he candidly admits, “as because this series does.”
The series in question is Eminent Lives, which describes itself as “brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures.” (The general editor, James Atlas, is the matchmaker.) Thus, Mr. Bryson sets off on a mission: “[To] see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.”
The short answer to this is not much. We don’t know, for instance, exactly when he was born or how to spell his name or whether he ever left England or who his best friends were. “His sexuality,” Mr. Bryson deduces, “is an irreconcilable mystery.”
On and on go the disclaimers: “We know precious little ….” “We hardly know what he was as a person.” “Ever a shadow in his own biography, he disappears, all but utterly ….” And yet Shakespeare: The World as Stage is not an ongoing discouragement, because Mr. Bryson is so cheerful as he goes about debunking received wisdom, cockamamie theories, eccentric research and serious but flawed scholarship. Like Show White sweeping up for the Seven Dwarfs, he whistles while he works.
Mr. Bryson begins by telling us what Shakespeare did (or did not) look like. Here’s his very first sentence, about the onetime owner of a Shakespeare likeness now in the National Portrait Gallery: “Before he came into a lot of money in 1839, Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, led a largely uneventful life.” Right off, the author’s established his blithe and sunny tone: If a trio of witches were cooking up this book in a cauldron, there’d be a pinch of P.G. Wodehouse, a soupçon of Sir Osbert Lancaster and a cup of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One can be firm of purpose and blithe at the same time, it turns out; one can write a seriously entertaining book.
Shakespeare: The World as Stage is aimed at general readers, not Shakespeare scholars, though the latter do make appearances now and then, not always is a flattering light, but always entertainingly. It will be up to academics to re-ravel what Mr. Bryson has unwound. Along these lines, the last chapter—“Claimants”—is particularly pleasurable, as the author trounces various theorists of alternative authorship of the plays. The Bard could hardly have a more devoted advocate. For instance, there is Mr. Bryson’s marvelous and succinct rebuttal of the Christopher Marlowe claim: “He was the right age … had the requisite talent, and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn’t too dead to work.” How nicely ironic it is that Mr. Bryson is now himself a kind of über-academic, having been named chancellor of Britain’s Durham University in 2005, and being very active in the preservation of the “rural life” of Merrie England.
Which, according to Mr. Bryson, wasn’t so merry in Shakespeare’s day. For after he tells us what we don’t know about Shakespeare, and some few facts that we do, Mr. Bryson proceeds to contextualize his subject by depicting his time. Here, where facts abound, the author is in his element. He gives us pages and pages of lists about Elizabethan, and then Jacobean life: about food, clothes, printing methods, theatrical practice, language and its orthography, usage and evolution, and much, much more. It’s as if you came to visit me, and when someone said, “What’s she like?”, proceeded to describe my apartment in detail, including an inventory of its contents, a description of the original floor plan, and a copy of the co-op bylaws. We learn about Shakespeare, sometimes minutely—but we’re never, as it were, in the room with him.
Mr. Bryson goes off at times on amusing tangents, makes pointed parenthetical remarks and is otherwise completely charming and conversational, like a good host. The pleasure of his company cannot, to borrow a phase from him, “be emphasized too strenuously.”
He’s neither a literary critic nor an English professor, yet one wishes, at times, that he’d written a bit more about the writing rather than the writer. Only here and there, as in the chapter titled “The Plays,” do we have a sense of the deep pleasure he takes in reading Shakespeare, as opposed to sleuthing around after him. “It is often said,” Mr. Bryson writes, “that what sets Shakespeare apart is his ability to illuminate the workings of the soul and so on, and he does that superbly, goodness knows, but what really characterizes his work—every bit of it, in poems and plays and even dedications, throughout every portion of his career—is a positive and palpable appreciation of the transfixing power of language.”
Just as we know to some degree how Shakespeare knew what he knew, we also know the same to some degree about Mr. Bryson, for he provides a Selected Bibliography listing “principal books referred to in the text.” There are some three dozen of these, the earliest dating from 1910, the most recent from 2006. But just as significant as these sources are the people Bryson visits (among them an expert in portraiture, an archivist at the National Archives in West London and an assortment of scholars) and the places he goes. As you may know, in addition to being the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), Mr. Bryson is a very well loved travel writer, and what he’s done here is not so great a departure from that genre.
In this book he time-travels. An American expat born in Des Moines, Iowa, a Briton by choice, Bill Bryson is an intentional and perpetual tourist, and it’s a great pleasure to accompany him on his foray into the 16th century.
Nancy Dalva, senior writer at 2wice, reviews books regularly for The Observer. She can be reached at email@example.com.