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!