Monday, January 30, 2012

Shakespeare The World as a Stage

Shakespeare – The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson. 2007. Bought at the Globe Gift Shop in London, April 2008. Read in August, 2008.

It's always fun to read Bill Bryson. He has a sly, sometimes acid wit, and he writes about rather profound things (such as language, the history of the universe, everyday life) in a down home, sit-around-the-fireplace kind of tone, much like Garrison Keillor. Very Midwest American. Bryson is from Iowa (has lived in England for years, still does) and Keillor is from Minnesota.

So what does all this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, this: Bryson has written a biography of him. As usual he has taken a vast subject and given us an unpretentious, amusing and affectionate nutshell of it.
He weaves the nuggets of fact we have on Shakespeare's life into the background tapestry of life in England, especially London, at the time. He presents the plays and writes about Shakespeare's language. Being a bit of a language expert himself Bryson makes this especially interesting. I always like to read about words Shakespeare invented (or as Bryson carefully points out, used in print for the first time that we know of), for example: antipathy, frugal, dwindle, assassination, lonely, zany... The list of course is almost endless. Did you know that Hamlet itself gave us about six hundred new words? A surprising number of Shakespeare's new words, about eight hundred according to Bryson, are still used today. Not to mention his phrases: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, be in a pickle, flesh and blood, foul play – again one could go on and on.

Using the garnered knowledge of such experts as Stephen Greenblatt and Frank Kermode, Bryson also deals with some of the myths and lies about Shakespeare that have persisted down the ages. For example the fact that he bequeathed ten pounds to the poor has been interpreted to show that Shakespeare was stingy but Bryson points out that at that time this was very generous. A person of Shakespeare's wealth could be expected to bequeath about two pounds. Bryson comes to no conclusion about what has been regarded as a very cold mention of his wife Anne Hathaway in his will, but he also points out that this is actually not evidence that they weren't on good terms (just wait till we get to Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife a few books from now!).

The book ends with a chapter about whether or not Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays (a subject once again currently all the rage) and he very sensibly concludes that while there is a lot of evidence that he did, there is absolutely no evidence of any kind that anyone else did. He ends his book: “Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man – whoever he was.”

This is an excellent book for those who don't know so much about Shakespeare but would like to, and it's also very enjoyable for those who know quite a lot about him. In other words, read it!


  1. To read, or not to read - that is the question;
    Whether 'tis wiser to ignore Bill completely,
    or by overcoming fierce prejudice and dislike,
    after two disappointments give him another try.
    To forget the superficiality of nearly everything,
    even more so the inanity of those Euro travels,
    that is a consumation devoutly to be wished.
    To forget the man behind - perchance to remember.
    Ay, there's the rub!

    1. Clever! But I wonder why you don’t like Bryson? I agree with you about his travelling around Europe book, since what he wrote about Sweden was a bit odd. But which of the others have you read? Although maybe that answer is more fitting on Library Thing…I think you should give his Shakespeare a chance.

  2. As a matter of fact, I have already ordered Bill's Shakespearean volume. It's your "fault", Ruby. That great review made me do it. I am very curious how it will compare to G. B. Harrison's nearly 60-years-old "Introducing Shakespeare" (which I have just finished and can't recommend highly enough to other Shakespeare neophytes).

    I have read only "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and "Neither Here Nor There" - quite enough to convince me that reading more Bryson is a sheer waste of time. (But I'll make an exception for Will all right.) I don't like - indeed I intensely dislike - Bryson's tremendous superficiality. He is in the appalling habit of spending enormous amount of space on, to put it mildly, trivial matters. And he is not even that amusing all the time. Then again, I am notoriously devoid of sense of humour, so that may be the reason for not appreciating Bill's great gifts.

    Ironically enough, his chapter on my native country was, I thought, one of the best in "Neither Here Nor There". Very funny yet very perceptive, even prophetic. But the rest of Europe was one blunder after another: whining, moaining, complaining; prudish, prigish, condescending, vulgar. "A Short History" was better - but not much better. It must be the most over-praised book still in print. It could have been a great book, if only Bill had indeed followed Gertrude's immortal advice: "more matter with less art".

  3. I have finished Bryson's "Shakespeare" and I must say it's much better than I expected. The amount of inane trivia or worthless statistics is negligible - quite unlike the two aforementioned books. As a brief overview with no scholarly intentions - certainly all it is intended to be - it works magnificently. Very informative, amusing and stimulating.

    Especially liked the last chapter. Bryson's facts must, of course, be checked with other, more robustly researched, sources, but it seems that all those hypotheses about ghost-writers behind Shakespeare's output are pretty ludicrous. Ruby, you are not an ardent "Baconian" or "Oxfordian", are you?

    1. So glad you were pleasantly surprised! Don’t worry, I’m most certainly neither a Baconian nor an Oxfordian. On the contrary, based on the serious research that has been done, I have no reason whatsoever to believe that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. One of these days I’ll be reviewing James Shapiro’s excellent Contesting Will on the subject. I liked your (Waldstein’s) long review of Bryson on Library Thing

  4. Your Stratfordian affiliations are most encouraring. I am very little interested in the "authorship question" and the very little I have read so far (besides Bill Bryson's account of it) is decidedly put-offish. Tomorrow it might turn up that William Shakespeare, a gentleman from Stratford, instead of pedestrian activities like writing plays, actually built a spaceship and visited the Moon, all this just about four and a half centuries before Apollo 11. Better early than never.

    Seriously speaking, as much as one can take the matter seriously, it's a logical impossibility to prove the non-existence of something. This is not scholarship or research. This is fantasizing. It makes a terrific subject for fiction of the Dan-Brown type. (Mind you, nothing's wrong with that. I have read Dan's two most notorious books and I have liked both of them a lot. Kill me now!) But to write "non-fiction" about it is just a bit too much. The question that non-Shakespeare "scholars" should - must - answer is not "Why Will didn't mention a single book or manuscript in his will?", but "How come that the name of William Shakespeare happens to be on so many early quarto editions of plays, not to mention the First Folio?"

    Interesting that you like my review of Bryson's book. I don't like it myself. But like 9 out of 10 reviews I had to leave it as it is, not because I am satisfied with it, but because I can't improve it.

    1. I agree, the authorship question is a non-question. The idea that W.S. flew to the moon is not much sillier. Re your review, spontaneous texts are often better off left alone.

  5. I want to share with you another conspiracy theory, one that would put to shame the anti-Stratfordian gang if only it were better known. Interestingly enough, it's about Mozart, comparisons with whom, for some completely obscure reason, seems to turn up now and then in the writings of anti-Stratfordians.

    Believe it or not, I heard this story with my own ears. It happened some years ago during a concert at which the conductor, apparently trying to compensate for his shattering mediocrity on the rostrum, regaled us with this fantastic tale in the middle of the program. I took it as a joke, of course, and was later slightly horrified to discover that the guy really believed all this hokum.

    In a nutshell, Mozart didn't die in Vienna and 1791 as the whole, wide, stupid world believes. Nope, not even close. Actually he was sent into exile in Italy, there he lived for decades afterwards, and - this is the stunning climax - he composed most of the music that Rossini passed for his own. A bit like the Marlowe-Shakespeare fairy tale.

    Some evidence you want? Well, it is totally conclusive - in an Oxfordian kind of way. First, painstaking research into the dustiest Vienna archives reveals that the weather during Mozart's funeral was not rainy and grey and depressing (as in Milos Forman's "Amadeus") but quite sunny and cloudless and cheerful. Therefore, Mozart's funeral was faked. Second, and even more important, there are numerous similarities between Mozart's music and that of Rossini. Clearly, therefore, the former must have written the works of the latter.

    You would like to know any reason why such elaborate conspiracy should have been necessary? Why, the same glorious research has supplied a thoroughly adequate reasons. Mozart, as is well known, was a Freemason. What is not known at all, however, is that in his last opera, "The Magic Flute", he exposed to the world numerous sacred and secret rituals of the secret society. Of course he was sentenced to death. But since he was a fairly tolerable composer, the gentle souls in the Freemason court decided to exchange the gallows with an exile for life.

    It truly beggars belief that there are people who seriously believe such preposterous crap. Like Tchaikovsky's court-of-honour suicide, to give another example from another great composer. Yet, come to think of it, neither "theory" is really any less moronic than the Baconian, Oxfordian, Marlovian, whatever, anti-Shakespearean conspiracies.

    As for the parallel between Will and Wolfi, do we need to expose its transcendental silliness? In case we do, we may point out that Mozart was born nearly two centuries after Shakespeare (192 years to be exact, so of course there would be much ampler documentation about him), there is no reason to suppose that Will was a wunderkind and wrote the first draft of "Hamlet" at the ripe age of 15 (of course his childhood would be far more osbcure than Mozart's European superstardom), still less is there any reason to suppose that John Shakespeare, even if not exactly illiterate, had any gift for writing or flair for drama (whereas Leopold Mozart was a famous violin teacher and excellent composer who immediately recognised the unusual gifts of his children: Mozart's sister was wunderkind too). Where's the parallel, really?

  6. This was appallingly fascinating! Why don’t people use their energy for analyzing real things?