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Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Reviewed: December 11, 2008
By: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Atlas Books (HarperCollins)
199 pages, $21.95

While there are a great many very thick books about the life and work of William Shakespeare, Bill Bryson suggests that the slender length of this particular volume is most appropriate. After all, he writes, we know a great deal about what came out of the man: thirty-nine plays ranging from comic farce through historical drama and dire tragedy; 154 sonnets; five longer poems published in chapbook form; about a dozen other works with which he may be connected.

What we really don’t know is how much of the man himself went into the plays. In his one man show, Acting Shakespeare, Sir Ian McKellen used to suggest that William’s marriage to Anne Hathaway must have been a troubled one simply because there were so may unhappy marriages in the plays. This, of course, leaves aside the fact that there’s not a lot of scope for either tragedy or comedy in a story about a happy relationship.

Most of the books about Shakespeare concentrate, out of necessity, on the man’s work. Bryson devotes only one of his book’s nine chapters to the plays, preferring, instead, to examine the social and historical context in which they were produced. He begins with a discussion of one of the various portraits of the Bard, of which several are on display in the tourist museum which is located next to his birthplace in Stratford.

The thing about the images of Shakespeare is that they are contradictory and illusive, like a lot of the “facts:” about his private life. I was aware for instance, that he never seemed to sign his name the same way twice, but I hadn’t realized that none of the signatures use the spelling that is now considered standard.

Bryson breaks the man’s life into sections and discusses what life would have been like for a young man of his social class at that time. For the first 18 years he was the son of a man who worked in leather, making gloves and fine articles, as well as being involved in the local politics and governance of his town. He lived in what was, for the time, a substantial home. He probably attended the local grammar school for eight or nine years, where he was tutored by schoolmasters who were students at Oxford University.

He married young, at age eighteen, to a woman who was in her twenties. Just how much older she was we don’t really know. Nor do we know much about what he did next. There are tales of his having been a school teacher in a nearby town; suggestions that he worked with his father; none of this is known. These are the Lost Years, and novels have been written which fill them in with a variety of conjectures.

In the late 1580s he went to London, and he later emerges as a name in the theatre, first as an actor, then as a playwright. Bryson devotes some space to describing the society and the profession as they are known to have existed at the time.

There is some discussion of the plays and poems as they would have been written during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Sometime during the latter’s reign, WIlliam began to spend more time in Stratford and less in London, building a fine house called New Place and arranging for the family to have a coat of arms as his father had once desired. He apparently collaborated with possible successors to his role as chief playwright for the King’s Men.

It’s strange that the work of Shakespeare is universally admired, but that so many people spend time trying to prove that he didn’t create it. Bryson is dismissive of the vogue for trying to prove that Shakespeare was really the cover name for a more illustrious person who wanted to be anonymous. Many of the fifty or so alternative candidates for the honour have well documented lives of their own.

“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 own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward.”

They seem to like Bryson’s book in Stratford, and several editions of it are on sale in the Birthplace gift shop, perhaps because it is less weighty and scholarly, more accessible than other books about the man. It’s an easy read.

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