Review: Shakespeare

If you’re looking for a detailed accounting of how Shakespeare passed his days, Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare is not going to satisfy you.  As Bryson makes abundantly clear, there are not a lot of hard facts about the Bard’s life, and the interpretation of the ones scholars do agree on is fairly wide open.  If I’m going to be wandering through a field of data with few well marked sign posts, Bryson is one of my go-to guys.  He’s an excellent researcher, a fine raconteur, and brings an excellent blend of common sense and speculation to the topic.

His topic here is utterly fascinating.  Shakespeare is a towering figure in English literature, to the point where even though most people know he’s the biggest name, they really don’t know how many expressions and words he brought into the language.  Even if one leaves aside the structure and execution of his plays as drama, his contributions to the language would make him immortal.  For someone who has literally influenced how every English speaker expresses themselves, we know next to nothing about him.  Even the contents of the plays and poetry are up for some debate.  The absence of data has not lead to an absence of biography, and pulling the supported narrative from the mythmaking is not easy.

Bryson leaps cheerfully and diligently into the fray.  He catalogs the facts well, pausing often to point out the herculean efforts that pulling a single bit of knowledge can require.  His digressions on the lengths that both professional scholars and obsessed laymen will go to in pursuit of a new atom of information are enlightening.  Such obsession leads to wholesale speculation from both professionals and amateurs that often lodges in the public mind.  Bryson turns a lighthearted but needed hose on these narratives when they get out of hand.  But he’s a writer and is not immune to the draw of pulling a coherent story from a few facts.  He respects the urge, but retains his reserve.

Overall the result is a somewhat threadbare biography that illuminates the legend without being seduced by it.  The chapter on debunking Shakespeare conspiracies is particularly delightful in this regard.  Bryson is always engaging and informed, but he’s not buying anything that isn’t supported.  And even by those standards, the life and works of Shakespeare stand up just fine.


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