I couldn’t say I’m a fan of Bill Bryson’s – Shakespeare being the first book I ever completely read; but, having started A short history of nearly everything (I stopped at page 100-and-something and the fault is 100% mine), I could guess I’ll probably become a fan soon enough. I really like his style: it’s very matter of fact, direct and funny at the same time, without much stylistic flourishing. He manages to separate what is essential, from what is either speculation or from what would need in-depth study – a quality I appreciate immensely (you’d think it’s easy, but I know a lot of people who have a hard time discerning the main idea of a text/discussion). Plus, his books are informative and well researched, so it makes for a pleasant and instructive read.
I’m not exactly into biographies – I concede they are very interesting (some, anyways) but I can’t seem to get motivated to delve into them; I’d rather drift off into some imaginary world. So I started the book with almost zero background knowledge on Shakespeare; by the end of it, I can’t say I’ve particularly expanded my academic horizon; but at least I understand the context a bit better. It’s a good starting point either to make you curious to dig deeper into the Bard’s life (yes, I had to use the bard title at least once 😉 ) or if you’re like me and just want the big picture. The main thesis is not to describe Shakespeare’s life, but to point out how little truth we actually know of him or his contemporaries and how, even with the scarcity of facts, we happen to know a lot more of him than say Marlowe or Ben Johnson. This review in The Telegraph criticizes the lack of focus on the plays; personally, I didn’t mind since I didn’t come to this book for textual analysis or interpretation. Overall, you get a feel of the age and you get to have fun with a selection of crazy Shakespeare was someone else theories.
My “huh?” moments:
– The face we know as Shakespeare may very well be some random guy.
– What we truly know about his life could probably fit in a page. The thousands of books written are highly speculative. Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote in his 1709 Life 11 pieces of information, 8 of which are false.
– Shakespeare had 6 known signatures – all of which are different. Funnily enough, the name we use today is not one of them.
– Elizabethan entertainment: horse riding chimpanzees chased and devoured by dogs. Had it not been for the animal protection agencies, we would have a reality show about that…
– The term box-office once described an actual office where the box with the day’s theater earnings was stored. How very…literal.
– Shakespeare at his worst borrowed almost mechanically– a passage in Henry V is taken more or less verbatim from Holinshed’s “Chronicles”.
– A couple of words that were actually invented by S: dwindle, hereditary, excellent, assassination, zany – overall, a total of over 300. Plus expressions that we use on a daily basis (some of them turning into clichés): vanish into thin air, play fast and loose (seriously?), budge an inch, foul play, flesh and blood etc.
– The mass appeal theaters had in the age.
– Hamlet, for example, exists in 3 versions: 1603 & 1604 quartos and the 1623 folio. It’s not an isolated case; most plays as we know them now have been “reconstructed” based on several sources.
– In 1840 PT Barnum had the idea to put Shakespeare’s home on wheels and have it tour the US. It was the push needed by the British authorities to turn it into a museum.
– More famous proponents of the “Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare” theory include Freud, Orson Wells and John Galsworthy. Their preferences regarding the real author vary.