Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson (Shakespeare Reading Month):

"When we reflect upon the works of William Shakespeare it is of course an amazement to consider that one man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling, ever-delighting body of work, but that is of course the hallmark of genius. Only one man had the characteristics and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man-whoever he was," (196).

I am not an expert on Shakespeare. I do think that I know more than most-say any high school student. I took a Shakespeare class in high school (we read four of his plays and many of his sonnets in a semester long course), as well as in college. For my college course, we stayed away from many of his well-known works-my professor assumed we had read them in high school, which was a bad assumption-and we focused on some of the lesser-known works-we read Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Two Noble Kinsmen among others. We also spent a lot of time discussing the Globe Theater and some of the specifics on the time period.

So yes, I think I know a little more than some, but there is still SO MUCH out there to read and learn about one of the most famous, well-known, and loved literary figures of all time. But what is more fascinating is how little we know about Shakespeare, considering he has left such a lasting legacy.

Bryson is not a Shakespearean scholar, which is why his exploration of Will Shakespeare is so fascinating. He manages to explain what we do know about the man in simple everyday terms, and with a touch of humor. He doesn't bog down his narrative with quotes, facts, and numbers, but seems to weave in the almost silly facts of other scholars. I really enjoyed how he put this;

"Faced with a wealth of text but a poverty of context, scholars have focused obsessively on what they can know. They have counted every word he wrote, logged every dib and jot. They can tell us (and have done so) that Shakespeare's works contain 138,198 commas, 26,794 colons, and 15,785 question marks; that ears are spoken of 401 times in his plays; that dunghill is used 10 times and dullard twice; that his characters refer to love 2,259 times but to hate just 183 times; that he used damned 105 times and bloody 226 times, but bloody-minded only twice; that he wrote hath 2,069 times but has just 409 times; that all together he left us 884,647 words, made up of 31,959 speeches, spread over 118,406 lines," (19).

Fascinating, right? That people have spent their lives counting these things in hopes of understanding more about the man.

Bryson fills this slim volume with this kind of information, as well as insights into Elizabethan and Jacobin England. He also discusses the construction of the theaters and how we only know what the Globe may have looked liked based on the drawing of a man who had never been there. Or that we know where it may have been placed based on a drawn panoramic view of London done by a man who had never been there. Also, that we can only guess what Shakespeare looked like based on one horrible drawing where one eye is larger than the other, the hair uneven, and the rest of it out of proportion, to a statue that was neglected and ruined with paint and whitewash. Or the painting that may be Shakespeare, but scholars can't be 100% sure.


I also love that Bryson discussed those close to Shakespeare-how his two friends are responsible for putting together the First Folio, which saved 18 of his plays from being completely forgotten. We also have them to blame for not putting The History of Cardenio in the folio, meaning that one of Shakespeare's works has been lost forever (at least that we know of).

Bryson makes sure to not make assumptions, but to merely report the things we do know, as well as what is surmised by the scholars that have come before us. He credits where he needs to, which the academic side of me really appreciated. He does all this with a great deal of wit, awe, and respect for a man that we probably won't know more about.

I also loved the last chapter in the book, called "Claimants," which focuses on those who believe the man Will Shakespeare was not the person who penned all these plays. Bryson goes through the different claims, and the most popular ones, and shows how some of these people are crazy (he points out that some of the scholars claiming other authors had names like Silliman, Looney, and Battey, which cracked me up) for believing that someone else could have penned the works attributed to Shakespeare.

"A third...candidate for Shakespearean authorship was Christopher Marlowe. He was the right age (just two months older than Shakespeare), had the requisite talent, and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work," (191).

In all, Bryson's book was a great introduction to Shakespeare, his world, and his legacy. While it certainly isn't the most in-depth or detailed of biographies, it gives a great overview in a fun and pleasing manner. If you are just starting out, looking for a quick and fun read, or want to make sure you are well-versed in all the books about Shakespeare and his life-this is the perfect book to choose. I know I really enjoyed it and will be visiting it often.

And as Bryson says,

"To answer the obvious question, this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as because this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record. Which is one reason, of course, it's so slender," (21).


  1. Loveee me some Bill Bryson. He is such a quick, sharp, and poignant writer. This is one I have wanted to pick up for awhile. Great review!

  2. Great review! I was so excited when I saw Bryson (one of my favorite authors) had written about Shakespeare and was not disappointed. I also appreciate that Bryson made clear how little it is we actually know about the man. And of course his comments about the anti-Stratfordians was pretty wonderful as well.

  3. I always wondered what might have happened in Shakespeare's life to make him wirte about love great enough to willingly die for and hate strong enough to send your own soul to hell for it, but I have accepted that we'll never know that.

    This book sounds great, if I am going to read a Shakespeare biography I will definitely go for this one.

    Oh, and you will never forgive William's poor friends for not saving The History of Cardenio, will you? ;)

  4. I love this biography! I just finished re-reading it yesterday (review up tomorrow) and I just think it's fab because he sticks entirely to the facts, of which, as you know, there aren't very many, and so, while it's not the most in depth biography, it's probably the most honest/least assume-y, which I think is great!

  5. I love Bill Bryson's writing, so I have no idea how I missed this book when it came out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed this one! I too was fascinated by the people spending their careers counting word usage across Shakespeare's plays....

  7. I love Bill Bryson! I can't wait to read this one! What a great review. Thanks for posting.

  8. I do like Bill Bryson's work. I'll have to add this one to my list.

  9. I'm rather embarrassed to say I've never read anything by Bryson. This sounds like a great introduction to Shakespeare's life and times.

  10. I keep seeing these posts going up and I'm still back on the second chapter...I'm feeling shamed into finishing here! :D

    I'm loving it, though, and really can't wait to learn more.

  11. I adored this book! I listened tot he audio which I really enjoyed as Bryson has just enough of a British accent to give it a British flair, but has retained enough of an American accnt to be easily understood.

  12. I'm loving this book (yep, I haven't finished it yet) so much. I don't think I ever realized how little I know about Shakespeare until now. I can't wait to reach the final chapter and I'm definitely going to read more by Bryson.

  13. I'm reading this one too, very slowly. I'm really enjoying it. I was afraid Bill Bryson't voice would annoy me (light-hearted looks at literature that attempt to make me laugh almost always annoy me), but so far I don't find him at all annoying. I even laughed in a couple places!

    I skipped ahead to read the last chapter early, because I was super curious. I like Bryson's defense of Shakespeare. :)

  14. Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to far added agreeable from you! By the way, how could we communicate?

  15. This is a great book - I think though that it merely shows what a good writer Bryson is, rather than giving us any new information about the great man (born twenty minutes down the road from my parents' house!).

  16. I have this but haven't started yet. Don't think I'll finish it before the end of the month lol