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Book review: <i>Shakespeare</i> by Bill Bryson

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the cover of the book

If this was a play, it would be called "The Extraordinarily Talented But Oddly Modest Playwright Who, It's Easy To Imagine, Finds All This Fuss Amusing".


Predictable text over a basic woodcut of Shakespeare – its crappiness IS explored in the book, however.

The plot

Bryson examines what few details we actually know about the English language's most famed practitioner. Reams almost beyond counting have been written on every element of the bard's life, but "Shakespeare" is not a very thick book, because, through the honesty I regard Bryson for, we're shown that there's very little hard evidence remaining about Mr.S. So Bryson takes a hard look at what little we do know, how we found it out, then scalpels away the myth, apocrypha and total bollocks that's accreted around Shakespeare in the four centuries since he passed on.

The good

Bryson capably navigates a sea of pseudo-academic nonsense when he has to, but the book's other main strength is his ability to convey domestic human detail, even if it took place in the seventeenth century. It's a combination particularly effective for the subject of Shakespeare, allowing Bryson to spin out and speculate over details of the life at the centre of the myth. He also finds time for the lives of those surrounding the writer, what we know about the world he inhabited, and, often most amusingly, the individuals who have researched and debated these same details to an often eccentric extent. As with most of Bryson's work, it's an indulgence of personality (and short shrift with its excesses) which generate most of the humour. Even the reader with ambivalent feelings toward Bryson's occasional over-indulgence in his own character will be pleased to know that Shakespeare (the book) is entirely Bryson-free, apart from his prose. It's also the tightest thing he's written in a long time.

Part of this is due, as the book constantly reminds us, to the fact that we have precious little concrete data about the man's life outside his plays, and even those were published posthumously by his colleagues, with the input of some very erratic editors. So, to throw mud in the eye of our fame-focussed culture, the sole generous conveyor of our greatest author's character is his work. The work, moreover, describes an author who would have been quite satisfied with this result. Bryson seems to warm himself by this fact, as we, noble non-subscribers to Who Weekly, should also.

The bad

Well, the truth is (and this ought to put the life of Jesus into perspective) it's bloody hard to pin down detail about ANYONE who was born in the fifteen hundreds. Pretty much the only reason we possess the details we do is that a couple of dedicated/unhinged yanks spent years scanning sheets of almost illegible sixteenth-century court records. From these we get meagre, virtually meaningless legal minutiae regarding Shakespeare's public life and a couple of his extant signatures (each, as most people know, employing a different spelling of his name, neither of which was "Shakespeare").

Which leaves us with a pretty skinny piece of work. Yes, it's as long as it needs to be, but, uncharacteristically for Bryson's choices of material, it could actually have been twice as long and still held my interest. If this is a sign of the author's future intent, then fair enough, but if it's just a missed opportunity I shall be annoyed. I'll leave you to argue the toss as to whether Bryson adhering to the specifics of what Shakespeare left us (and what others have deduced, often bizarrely, from them – that he was gay, that he hated his wife, that he never wrote a play) or whether Bryson ought to have delved further into the plays themselves and risked a bit more of himself to give us his opinions on them, despite, again, the staggering weight of existing analysis behind him. Clive James manages it, but then he would, wouldn't he. In MY book, anyway, THIS book is well worth reading.

What I learned

Stuff about Shakespeare, duh! Did you know that he half- inched the plot of Hamlet from another playwright, who, in fact, pinched it from somebody else? Did you know that there are only three existing images of Shakespeare? (a good one which may not be of him at all, a crappy woodcut - used on the book's cover - and a wooden statue, long missing its original painted 'skin' of detail.)

That Shakespeare acted in a great many of his own plays, although he wasn't the best actor in his troupe by a long shot.

In short

Title: Shakespeare
Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0061965326
Year published: 2009 (updated edition)
Pages: 256
Genre(s): Non-fiction, History, Biography
Review Type: