Oct 1, 2009

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as a Stage is as much a biography of Shakespeare as it is a portrait of Elizabethan England and its theatre and a history of Shakespearean scholarship. I used to attribute my impression that Shakespeare was shrouded in mystery to the fact that I didn't grow up in an English-speaking country. I’ve always known of Shakespeare, of course, but I didn’t read him until late, and didn’t study him in school until my second university degree. But the more I read about him, the more I realize that my impression that Shakespeare is shrouded in mystery comes from the fact that, well, he is.

Most of his work survives—and Bryson shows us clearly how this in itself is quite a miracle—and literary discussions about it abound. But not very much at all is known about the man itself. How, then, can so many biographies have been written? Bryson points out that most of them are five per cent fact and 95% conjecture. But in Shakespeare: The World as a Stage he uses a different approach. Rather than attempt to add to the facts by making suppositions himself, he tells us which suppositions have been made, what evidence there is to support them, what evidence there is against them, and so on. The result is a fascinating, satisfying, and one hundred per cent shenanigans-free book.

Bryson uses the same approach when writing about the social and cultural context in which Shakespeare was immersed. Many of the facts about Elizabethan England in general and about the theatre in particular that he includes here were not new to me. But what I didn’t know was how they were known. And that was more interesting to read about than I could ever have imagined.

My one previous experience with Bill Bryson had been less than positive, but after reading Shakespeare, I more than forgive him for how much he irritated me before. In Shakespeare, he writes with intelligence, humour and enthusiasm. There was only one passage that made me want to argue with him, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He says:
Ages are generally pretty incompetent at judging their own worth. How many people now would vote to bestow Nobel Prizes for Literature on Pearl Buck, Henrik Pontoppidan, Rudolf Eucken, Selma Laferlöf or many others whose fame would barely make it to the end of their own century?
It’s not that I disagree—I just think this is an oversimplification. While it’s safe to say that a literary work that isn’t forgotten has merit, the opposite is not necessarily true. There are hundreds of reasons—political, ideological, social, or of another nature altogether—why an author can become outmoded; reasons that tell us nothing about the quality of their work or about how worthy or not they were of an award received during their lifetime. And I have to confess that I was also a bit upset that he’d pick on Selma Lagerlöf and Pearl S. Buck, two of the eleven women to have won the prize (out of 105 Laureates).

But as I was saying, it can be fun to read something that will make you want to argue back, and I think that a lot of the time Bill Bryson is going for that deliberately. If you like Shakespeare, or even if you don’t, read this book. It’s intelligent, informative, well researched, accessible, fun, and very difficult to put down.

A passage that made me laugh out loud (particularly the last bit):
In 1918 a schoolmaster from Gateshead, in north-east England, with the inescapably noteworthy name of J. Thomas Looney, put the finishing touches to his life’s work, a book called Shakespeare Identified, in which he proved to his own satisfaction that the actual author of Shakespeare's work was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere. It took him two years to find a publisher willing to publish the book under his own name. Looney steadfastly refused to adopt a pseudonym, arguing, perhaps just a touch desperately, that his name had nothing to do with insanity and was in fact pronounced loney. (Interestingly, Looney was not alone in having a mirthful surname. As Samuel Schoenbaum once noted with clear pleasure, other prominent anti-Stratfordians of the time included Sherwood E. Silliman and George M. Battey.)
Other opinions: A Striped Armchair, Just a (Reading) Fool, Stuck in a Book, where troubles melt like lemon drops

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

41 comments:

  1. Can I just raise my hand and say I would definitely vote for a prize for Pearl Buck? She's wonderful!

    I've always gotten a bad taste in my mouth about Bryson, but this appears to be less of one big fart joke (forgive the term) and more of a serious - though still joking - look at literature. If I tried anything by him, this is the most likely candidate by far.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't think I've heard of this before. It looks really good!

    Lezlie

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really liked this one too! :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. May be worth my getting ahold of this one.

    In the meantime, I just wanted to remind you that your blog is definitely outstanding.

    http://carolsnotebook.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/awards/

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've enjoyed most of Bill Bryson's books. I would love to read this one at some point!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well people here in Sweden still know who Selma Lagerlöf is. If nothing else because she is on one of our bank notes. But also because everyone has at least read (or had their teacher read them) Nils Holgerson.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I didn't know Bryson wrote about Shakespeare. I definitely need to read this. I've read some of his travel stuff, and he just kind of cracks me up.

    What a great review!! Sometimes you are just too insightful for words!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Amanda: I need to read The Good Earth! And lol, I know what you mean about Bryson. This one's worth reading, though!

    Lezlie, I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

    Eva: I know :P

    Carol, thank you again :D

    Tricia: What would you recommend I read next? I wasn't too crazy about Notes from a Small Island, but after this I definitely do want to read him again.

    Zee: It was a very unfortunate comment, wasn't it? I LOVED Nils Holgerson, and I definitely want to read more Lagerlöf. The only bit of what Bryson said I agree with is that it's hard to predict which authors will still be read in the future. But being forgotten is relative, and it can happen for SO many reasons. Literary awards should be about more than "posteriority"

    Stephanie: :o *blushes* I wasn't too crazy about the travel book of his I read, but he IS funny, that's for sure.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think we reacted much the same to the one travel book we both read of his. ;) Even so, I've thought I'd like to give A Short History of Nearly Everything a try. And if that went okay, maybe try another of his travel ones, A Walk in the Woods, simply because Rich and I hiked a piece of the AT for our honeymoon. But honestly, this one hadn't really been on my list of possibles. Until now, that is.
    If you're going to keep doing this to my wish list, I sure wish you'd get to work on a potion that will allow me to actually live long enough to read them all!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sometime I'm going to get to a Bill Bryson book. This one sounds good!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Oh, Nymeth, I'm so sorry: the one time you write about a book I know, I have to disagree completely :( I usually enjoy Bryson (his best being, A Short History of Nearly Everything), but to me this book was completely deprived of humor. It was one of the cruelest reviews I ever wrote! (But I wanted to comment nonetheless. See? I'm trying!)

    ReplyDelete
  12. This sounds like a marvelous book! I love all the speculation surrounding Shakespeare the man.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I love Shakespeare, and I *heart* Bill Bryson. Someday I will have this book (really? no shenanigans?). Love the bit about Mr. Looney. Thank you for this.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I can't move pass trying to connect Bill Bryson with Shakespeare. He would have been the last person I would have thought of to write this book.

    I need to read it just to get over my astonishment.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I enjoyed my previous Bryson experience, so I suspect I'd love this one.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I really like Bryson, even when, as with "A Short History of Everything" he had some small factual errors. It was still a really good book and the errors were only important to specialists. I haven't read this one yet but I would like to do so.

    The quote about the Nobel Prize is especially funny to me at the moment because I am reading the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy and thinking, okay, it's okay, but Nobel Prize? what were they thinking in 1928?!!!

    ReplyDelete
  17. This sounds like a very different approach to Shakespeare than I am familiar with, and like something that would really interest me. I haven't read much Shakespeare, only what I got in high school, but I have long been curious about his writing and life. This book seems to cut all of the speculation away and deal with the heart of the matter, which is something I appreciate. Thanks for the great review on this one, I will be looking out for it.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This looks terrific -- I loved Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue. I always appreciate your detailed and thoughtful reviews -- they are thought-provoking and enjoyable to read. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. I almost picked up this book some time ago but didn't. You did another great job with the review, Ana!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Debi: Yep :P I felt bad that you sent it all this way and then I wasn't crazy about it :( And how cool that you and Rich went hiking on your honeymoon :D I want to read A Short History of Nearly Everything too.

    Hannah: The one he wrote about the English language, The Mother Tongue, looks quite promising!

    Francesca, there's absolutely no need to apologize! It's okay to disagree! I didn't find him all that funny in Notes from a Small Island either (he just annoyed me to be honest :P), so I understand.

    Terri: A good mystery is always more interesting than the plain facts :P

    ds, then there's no way you won't enjoy this!

    Vivienne: lol! And he makes his fondness for Shakespeare quite clear in the book too :P

    Kathy: And I definitely need to give him more of a chance.

    Jill: That's too bad there are errors in Short History. The ones that only the experts will notice are the ones that worry me the most, because I know I just won't be able to tell. About the Nobel, it's one of those things that people will never agree about. I bet that even at the time there were those who aren't happy with the winners, and that even now there are those who continue to read and love even the authors who have become outmoded.

    Zibilee: It doesn't quite cut all of the speculations simply because there aren't enough facts to put an end to it for good. But it exposes it for what it is, and I really appreciated that.

    Stephanie: Thank you so much! And I need to read The Mother Tongue.

    Alice: You can always get it next time :P

    ReplyDelete
  21. I had forgotten about Notes from a Small Island. I didn't like that one either, but it's the only one I read in Italian, and felt everything funny was lost in translation. Maybe not.
    BTW, I was more sad than apologising ;)

    ReplyDelete
  22. Francesca: Good :P I read Notes from a Small Island in English, so I don't think it was the translation. My main problem was his constant complaining about every.single.thing. It REALLY got on my nerves after a while :P I'm happy to hear his others are not like that!

    ReplyDelete
  23. This sounds really good - especially how you explained that he collects and debates the supposed facts on Shakespeare. I'd pretty much given up on bios of the bard, given that they are all so contradictory. But this approach I like!

    ReplyDelete
  24. I know very little about Shakespeare myself. Sounds like an interesting read and I love the quote you provided! Can you imagine being saddled with that surname?!

    ReplyDelete
  25. I have never read any of Bill Bryson's books! I have my own opinions on Shakespeare and have always found him a very interesting topic, so I think this would be a good place to start.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I've enjoyed the work of Bryson that I've read in the past, and as a Shakespeare fan this is definitely one that is going on the list. The approach he takes in writing it sounds fascinating. I'll have to point Jennifer Gordon over here to this review since she mentioned her love of Shakespeare this time of year in the interview I just posted.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I've never heard of this one, but since I am a Shakespeare fan, I'll have to add this to my wishlist!

    ReplyDelete
  28. I've had this one on my shelves for months, and I've always loved his travel writing, but I think part of the reason I've never read it yet, is my only exposure to his not travel stuff was "Mother Tongue" which I couldn't get in to.

    I really should give him the benefit of the doubt though! Not least because I have A Short History and Life and Times next to the Shakespeare one as well!

    ReplyDelete
  29. I can't recall which Bryson I read but yeah, I wasn't impressed. This sounds good, though, thanks for the review! *Adding to my list*

    ReplyDelete
  30. I found this book really interesting when I read it back when it came out. It's the only Bryson I have read.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I've been wanting to read something by Bill Bryson and I was thinking of reading Notes from a Small Island. I didn't know about this one but it sounds like it's lot more interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Bill Bryson is one of those authors that I know I want to read because all of his books sound interesting, this one included. But for some reason I just never get around to actually reading any of his books... so, maybe I should do that :) This one sounds fun.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I would love to learn more about Shakespeare so this book is one that I think I would enjoy to read.

    ReplyDelete
  34. it can be fun to read something that will make you want to argue back

    I was curious about this book anyways, ('cause, Shakespeare!), but hearing that it's one of those makes me want to read it all the more. I LOVE nonfiction that invites me to contrast my own views with those of the author.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I've been hearing a lot about Bryson lately, but mostly his travel books. This one sounds like one I really need to read. I've studied Shakespeare a fair amount (maybe more than any other author?) and it does amaze me how much isn't known about him, his life, or even his writings. I read a somewhat dry and pedantic book a few years back called Authors and Owners and the author (Rose) talked a lot about Shakespeare and the creative atmosphere in which he was writing--specifically something that was more communal. Talks of Pope, Jonson and Milton..."Shakespeare, who had in fact participated in a mode of cultural production that was essentially collaborative, was being fashioned into the epitome of original genius." Anyway, would be interested to see if Bryson discusses any of that. (the book I'm referring to is about copyright...an interesting subject, I guess. Roses discussion of intellectual property, though, is really interesting. Too heavy for Saturday!!!

    ReplyDelete
  36. >The result is a fascinating, satisfying, and one hundred per cent shenanigans-free book.

    I couldn't agree more. I like Bryson, but can't read more than one of his books every couple of years. The snarkiness definitely grates at times.

    But...I forgive him everything for this lovely, well-written, respectful but not fawning perspective on Shakespeare. I especially loved the chapter on debunking the "who wrote Shakespeare's plays" nonsense.

    I really enjoyed your review of one of my favorite books on Shakespeare.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, with Bryson's dry wit and relaxed style of writing. That this was a short book focussing on what is actually known about Shakespeare, rather than what is supposition about the man, made me enjoy it even more. Glad you like it, excellent review.

    ReplyDelete
  38. The only Bryson book I've read so far is The Mother Tongue which was amusing but was apparently full of factual errors, so it's made me hesitant to try any of his other 'history' titles. I think I have one of his travel ones around here somewhere that I'll read eventually.

    ReplyDelete
  39. This is one of two Bill Bryson books that I have NOT read- the other being the memoir of his childhood. I have it on my shelves (both of them, actually) and am not sure why I don't actually read it.

    ReplyDelete
  40. I've read several Bryson books and really enjoyed them, but they were mostly light Travelogs -- I especially love A Walk in the Woods. I'll have to put this on my to-read list.

    And I agree with Amanda -- Pearl S. Buck was a great author -- of course I'm biased because I just visited her house on Monday, so she's really on my mind. But she wrote more than 70 books and was highly influential about the plight of international adoptions and biracial orphans in other countries. She was an amazing woman!

    ReplyDelete
  41. I loved The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid! There was another book of his that I didn't enjoy and DNF. This one is on my TBR.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.