Saturday, December 05, 2015
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
The argument over the author of Shakespeare’s plays – and even his existence – rely on a rather silly and unsupported raft of ideas, which easily sink on close examination. The documents mentioning Shakespeare are legion, yet not a single document directly connecting another author to the plays exists. Many of the candidates died before Shakespeare, and plays those candidates supposedly penned, contained events of ideas which occurred after their death. Bill Bryson has authored an entertaining and carefully supported review of what we do know about the Bard of Avon. His 2007 national bestseller, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, should be of interest to anyone even remotely curious about the greatest writer in the English language.
Bill Bryson has written a number of non-fiction works, which have occupied the best seller lists for some time. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but now lives in Norfolk, England. His smooth and entertaining style is accessible to anyone with even the slightest idea of Shakespeare from high school English classes. Bryson also provides vivid pictures of Elizabethan England. He writes of London, “City life had a density and coziness that we can scarcely imagine now. Aware from the few main thoroughfares, streets were much narrower than they are now, and houses, with their projecting upper floors, often all but touched. So neighbors were close indeed, and all the stench and effluvia that they produced tended to accumulate and linger. Refuse was a perennial problem. […] Rich and poor lived far more side by side than now. The playwright Robert Greene died in wretched squalor in a tenement in Dowgate, near London Bridge, only a few doors from the home of Sir Francis Drake, one of the wealthiest men in the land” (49). Bryson continues, “According to nearly all histories, the gates to the city were locked at dusk, and no one was allowed in or out till dawn. though as dusk falls at midafternoon in a London winter there must have been some discretion in the law’s application or there would have been, at the very least, crowds of stranded, and presumably aggrieved, play goers on most days of the week” (49-50).
The book also contains a number of interesting tidbits about the times. Of particular interest to me is the state of publishing and book binding. Bryson writes, “Printed books had already existed, as luxuries, for a century, but this was the age in which they first became accessible to anyone with a little spare income. At last average people could acquire learning and sophistication on demand. More than 7,000 ttiles were published during Elizabeth’s reign – a bounty of raw materials waiting to be absorbed, reworked, or otherwise exploited by a generation of playwrights experimenting with new ways of entertaining the public. This is the world into which Shakespeare strode, primed and gifted” (52). So much for the naysayers idea that a country boy, who did not have a college degree, could have written so many memorable and magnificent works.
In 1668, John Dryden wrote of Shakespeare, “Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learn’d” (109)
Bill Bryson’s entertaining and enlightening book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage also has an extensive bibliography for further reading. I would also recommend Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World for a further and more detailed exploration of Shakespeare’s life. 5 stars