Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Shakespeare, Bill Bryson (audiobook)

William Shakespeare is the most loved and well-known of English playwrights. But what do we really know about the man we call the Bard? Historian Bill Bryson goes back to the primary sources and interviews key experts in order to put together this interesting but shockingly slim biography.

The reason for the book's brevity is simply because we don't know that much about Shakespeare. According to Bryson, not one letter or diary by, to, or mentioning Shakespeare survives. His descendants died without offspring after two generations, and no biographer attempted to interview them while they were alive. Even the authenticity of the three portraits of who we suppose is Shakespeare, from which all other portraits have been taken, is unconfirmed. It's often said that Shakespeare was born and died on the same day, but that too is supposition, based on the date of his baptism. Perhaps most horrifying of all to learn is that in likelihood we wouldn't have the plays of Shakespeare if a folio of his work hadn't been compiled and published after his death. (Millions of schoolchildren down the generations just groaned in dismay.)

It is tempting to suppose we can deduce Shakespeare's character from his work and many frustrated historians have attempted to do just that. But Shakespeare wrote such diverse characters and plots, so do we suppose he is capricious like A Midsummer Night's Dream, or hopelessly romantic like Romeo and Juliet? Even his sexuality can only be guessed at, as many of his sonnets are addressed to a man, including "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?". Finding the man behind the bard is a frustrating and ultimately vain undertaking, and it's doubtful that after all this time new documents will surface that will tell us more about him.

While unable to relate a detailed account of Shakespeare's life, Bryson provides a great deal of context to the period in which the plays were written, the status and quality of the English language at the time and the many myths that surround the playwright. One hundred and fifty years after his death, the authorship of Shakespeare's plays began to be called into question. It was argued that Francis Bacon or another playwright had penned the works. There is no evidence or convincing reason for this, and no other playwrights of the day have been accused of fraudulence. It's a peculiar habit of conspiracy theorists that they target only the most well-known or well-loved of a field; it seems that less famous individuals are hardly worth wasting their powers of invention on.

Written with his characteristic dry humour, Bryson's Shakespeare is a compelling read. The audiobook, read by the author, includes a short but interesting interview with Bryson.

My mini review of A Short History of Nearly Everything can be found here. If you have doubts about Bryson's comedic talents, laughing your way through his history of science will dispell them. I plan to read The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way shortly.


  1. The fact that the controversy about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon has persisted for over 200 years is evidence of the extreme disconnect between the man from Stratford and his works.

    The debate exists not because of some dubious "conspiracy theorists" but because there has been nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six illegible signatures. There are no letters, correspondences, or manuscripts of any sort, no paper trail of any sort to identify the man behind the name.

    The plays are written by a highly educated man who has traveled extensively, has an astounding vocabulary, was familiar with the inner working of the courts, spoke several languages, and had a highly aristocratic and feudal outlook.

    This controversy has now crystallized with more and more support for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a recognized poet and playwright whose life story is all over the plays. Throwing around silly labels like "conspiracy theories" will not make this magically disappear. I think that you also probably know that.

  2. Hmmmm... I seem to recall hearing once that Shakespeare had the largest number of biographies written about him, trailed by Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. He's a diverse guy so I wouldn't doubt it.

    You have a fun blog- I'll be back!

  3. Howard, I appreciate your position but the mere fact that the controversy exists proves absolutely nothing. Neither does the lack of correspondance prove anything either.

    "The plays are written by a highly educated man who has traveled extensively, has an astounding vocabulary, was familiar with the inner working of the courts, spoke several languages, and had a highly aristocratic and feudal outlook."

    This is debunked as evidence in Bryson's biography. He also questions why people are unable to conceive that an ordinary man (ie. not an aristo) was capable of genius and fame.

    Thank you for your comments.

    *throws label "conspiracy theory" around like a kitten with a ball of string*

  4. Rhiannon- I can conceive of an ordinary man writing extraordinary works. In this case, however, there is just no evidence for it. I haven't read what Mr. Bryson has to say so I cannot comment on what he has to say on the subject. Anyone can come up with a reply to critics of the orthodox point of view. That does not mean that on close examination that they hold water.

    All I know is that having recently seen 30 of the 37 plays, it is more than obvious to me (as it would be to anyone familiar with the data) that the plays are a clear mirror of the circumstances of the life of Edward de Vere.

    Let me ask this - Do you think the greatest writer in the English language would have let his daughters remain illierate?

  5. hahaha love an uptight debate!

  6. Sounds like an interesting read. I have to wonder whether it matters who wrote the plays in the end, but there are a lot of interesting theories out there and they all shed light on the era in which some very good writing came from.

  7. I don't see how one can argue that Shakespeare's plays were written by someone else, given that we know a staggeringly little amount about the man and his work - there isn't even a "definitive" version of Hamlet, arguably his most famous play. There simply isn't enough hard evidence to suggest that another person wrote them - only conjecture - so the simplest explanation is probably the correct one, ie, it was Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare's plays.

    That said, I love the idea of a secret author and related conspiracies, and the theories are truly fascinating. (My favourite Shakespeare authorship theory is the one put forward by Jasper Fforde in his Thursday Next books. It involves time travel!)

  8. Hi Rhiannon! Glad to find my way over here. I've read Bryson's A SHORT HISTORY and this looks equally wonderful.

  9. interesting debate on Shakespeare going on here. i'm curious to hear more about the time travel.

    yes, bryson can be hilarious. the one story i've read from him that i really enjoyed was A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. been meaning to read more. this Shakespeare one sounds like a good one to get into as I love Shakespeare's works.

  10. I didn't even know he had written a book on Shakespeare! Gah! I did listen to "Notes from a Small Island" last year and thought it hilarious. Audio is definitely the way to go with his dry, crusty Brit humor.