2007; 197 pages (plus ‘Extras’). Full Title : Shakespeare: The World As Stage. New Author? : No. Genre : Biography; History; Non-Fiction; Authors. Overall Rating : 9½*/10.
“Hey, how much do you know about the life of William Shakespeare?”
“Oh, lots! He wrote a bunch of plays that we were forced to read, one per year, in high school English. He lived in Stratford-on-Avon. Or maybe London. Hmm. Or maybe both places. I can picture his face – a high forehead with, bald on top, and dark hair on the sides.”
“Not bad. Anything else?”
“Yeah, his wife’s name was Anne Hathaway. They were deeply in love, just read his sonnets. And, hey, I can even spell his name correctly: S – H – A – K – E – S – P – E – A – R – E.” That’s about it. Pretty good, huh?”
"It is! But what if I told you there are only three “originals” of Shakespeare's face, all done years after his death, and all very questionable in accuracy? Or that Shakespeare only bequeathed his wife the “second-best bed” from their home? Or that Shakespeare spelled his name all sorts of ways, but never the way we spell it today? Or that lots of self-titled scholars down through the centuries have claimed he never existed, and that those plays you list were actually written by someone else?”
“Hmm. Then I guess I better go read a good biography of Shakespeare, to find out what the truth is. Do you happen to know of any?”
"Funny you should ask..."
What’s To Like...
Shakespeare: The World as Stage is part of a biography series called “Eminent Lives”; more on this later. Bill Bryson is of course a writer who could make a 250-page book on watching paint dry seem interesting. That serves him well here, because the truth is, very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, which makes writing his life story quite the challenge. Bryson solves this by writing a book focused as much on describing life in England in the late 1500’s/early 1600’s as on Shakespeare’s personal life. He succeeds eminently.
The book is divided into 9 chapters:
1. In Search of William Shakespeare.
How little we know about him, including what he looked like.
2. The Early Years 1564-1585
Shakespeare’s marriage and his three kids. Plus how easily you could die.
3. The Lost Years 1585-1592.
Shakespeare goes to London. Was he a closet Catholic?
4. In London.
The Golden Age of Theaters in England. Talk about good timing!
5. The Plays.
Which ones came first. His writing strengths and weaknesses.
New Words, New phrases, New literary devices.
What lines and words he stole.
6. Years of Fame 1596-1603.
Shakespeare gets rich and famous. His son dies.
He writes his best plays – Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.
7. The Reign of King James 1603-1616.
His sonnets and later plays.
His brother and mother die.
Died in April, 1616.
His family line dies out within a couple generations.
Theaters die out too, thanks to the Puritans.
Shakespeare’s reputation down through the centuries.
Was there really a William Shakespeare?
Identities of the proposed “pretenders”.
Bill Bryson is best known for his travelogue tales, but I’m also impressed with his ability to vividly describe historical times (see here *** for an example). The way he paints England in Shakespeare’s time is breathtaking. Plague and religious strife were rampant. Tobacco, a recent import from the New World, was prescribed for all sorts of health ailments. Guy Fawkes and others plotted to blow up Parliament. Uneasy lay the head that wore the crown.
It sucked to be poor, and most people were. Yet somehow, they had time and money for the theater, which had only recently sprung into existence. And what a joy it was to go to, or even work in the theater! James Burbage was the leading actor of the day, and Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were other noted London playwrights of the day. There wasn’t a better time for Shakespeare to show up with pen in hand and plays to write.
The literary parts of the book are as fantastic as the history portions. Bill Bryson is neither jealous nor in awe of Shakespeare, both the man and the playwright, and does does his best with the very limited amount of direct knowledge we have about Shakespeare. When he’s forced to rely on conjecture, he lets the reader know. He’s not afraid to tackle subjects such as: Was Shakespeare Catholic? Was Shakespeare gay? Did he plagiarize lines from other people’s works? Was Shakespeare even real?
The quibbles are minor. There are a bunch of “extras” at the back of the book: a bibliography, acknowledgements, About the Author, etc. But all of it seemed "skippable". There is no such thing as a boring Bill Bryson book, but I did hit one slow spot when he went into length about the reliability of other biographers’ versions of William Shakespeare’s life. And at 197 pages, the book was over way too quickly.
We’ll close this section by offering three trivia teasers about the Bard of Avon. Answers are in the Comments section.
a. How many new words did Shakespeare add to the English language?
b. How many different ways did Shakespeare use to spell his name?
c. How many different ways has his name been spelled (in English only) by others?
Kewlest New Word…
Anatopism (n.) : something that is out of place. (e.g.: an outrigger canoe in Madrid)
Others : Prolix (adj.); Lexeme (n.); Insuperable (adj.); Ambit (n.); Amanuensis (n.).
This disdain for female actors was a Northern European tradition. In Spain, France, and Italy, women were played by women – a fact that astonished British travelers, who seem often to have been genuinely surprised to find that women could play women as competently onstage as in life. Shakespeare got maximum effect from the gender confusion by constantly having his female characters – Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night – disguise themselves as boys, creating the satisfyingly dizzying situation of a boy playing a woman playing a boy. (loc. 943)
Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless). Where would we be without them? (…)
(M)any of them failed to take hold. Undeaf, untent, and unhappy (as a verb), exsufflicate, bepray, and insultment were among those that were scarcely heard again. (loc. 1393)
Shakespeare: The World as Stage sells for $8.24 at Amazon, which is not bad for a well-known author like Bill Bryson. There are a slew of Bryson's books available for your Kindle, ranging in price from $7.99 to $13.99.
O paradox! black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons and the school of night. (loc. 1279, from “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, and considered one of the most unfathomable lines from a Shakespeare play)
As mentioned earlier, Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage is part of something called the Eminent Lives series. There apparently are 12 books in the series, at least at the time Bryson's contribution was published as an e-book.
All the books are deliberately short – 200-250 pages or so. Each biography is written by an author you don’t ordinarily associate with this genre. I gather the intent of the series is to write biographies for people who don’t normally read biographies. I fall into that category.
The 12 books in the series are listed in the back of Shakespeare: The World As Stage. Some are about people you’d expect: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, etc. Some are about people I've never, or barely even heard of: George Balanchine, Frances Crick, Alexis de Tocqueville. Some are about people that pique my interest: Muhammad, Machiavelli, Caravaggio. Each is written by a different author.
Most of these books are about 250 pages long, and the price range seems to be $9-$15. That’s a bit rich for my reading tastes, so here’s hoping they show up at one of the discounted e-books sites at some point in the future. Shakespeare did.
9½ Stars. Highly recommended, especially if you're bananas about Bryson, and/or don't normally read biographies.