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.