Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

I wasn't sure I would learn much new about Shakespeare from this biography (although admittedly, it is my first Shakespeare biography) and as it is so short, I worried that it would be a light gloss over the facts, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as Mr. Bryson so aptly points out, all the long biographies are the ones we should be concerned about as there are scanty facts regarding Shakespeare's life and therefore his biographies are primarily speculation and assumption. His is short mostly because he tries to stick to the facts. And really, unless one is an academic, this is probably all one really needs to know.

Some interesting bits I took away from the book:

  • Shakespeare was frugal and really didn't like to pay his taxes.

  • The Shakespeares were bad at procreating and his only granddaughter was the last of the line.

  • Contrary to popular belief that he grew up impoverished and uneducated, his father was the #2 man in town and he went to a pretty darn good school (the schoolmaster was paid doubled what the teachers at Eton were paid) and learned a great deal of Latin etc.

  • People at his time complained about the horrible traffic (the more things change....)

  • Whenever plague broke out in London, all the theaters were closed for a year.

  • Shakespeare is mostly described as being Elizabethan but he wrote more than half his plays during the Jacobean era, and in fact his company was sponsored by King James.

  • William Shakespeare did so write his own plays.

  • No really.

  • In fact, it's particularly insulting to presume otherwise. No one goes around accusing Marlowe or his other contemporaries - some of which truly were pretty uneducated - of having not written their plays. And even if he had grown up poor and relatively uneducated, that still doesn't mean he couldn't write brilliantly - look at Abraham Lincoln after all. (That said, I do intend to see the movie "Anonymous" but purely as fictional fun.)

  • He wrote two plays that are lost.

  • Three of his plays (including one of the lost ones) he wrote in collaboration with another author!
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I really loved Mr. Bryson's narration. Having lived in England for at least 25 years, he now speaks with a British accent, but as he is originally American, his accent isn't strong, and he uses American phrasing and no idioms that are not easily understood in America. And a British accent just seems appropriate for a book about someone as quintessentially English as William Shakespeare. Mr. Bryson was careful to not make this a funny book, as he didn't want to insert himself into the narrative, but he can't help but occasionally be humorous, which is never a bad thing.

This audio also came with a bonus! At the end there was a 20-15 minute conversation between Mr. Bryson and his editor which was excellent. And it's truly nice for once, as an audio listener, to get a little more than the print readers instead of less (presuming the interview isn't also transcribed in the back of the print book which it may well be.) I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in Shakespeare, if you know nothing about him or have read all his plays, you'll definitely still learn a lot and enjoy it thoroughly.

I bought this book from Audible.


Julie @ Read Handed said...

I haven't heard of this one by Bryson, but I love the other books by him I've read. Sounds like a good book to pick up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Ellie said...

I enjoyed this one, it was surprising to read how little we do actually know about Shakespeare.

Kristen said...

I love Bill Bryson's work. His travelogues are hilarious and his nonfiction books are good, too. I will definitely be adding this to the TBR pile!

PS - if you haven't read At Home by Bryson, you may really enjoy it. It's all about how our homes became what they are. Very interesting to read!

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I just purchased the print version for my husband for his birthday -- what good timing! I love Bryson -- I hope my husband does too.

Carin Siegfried said...

@ Kristen, yes I have read At Home and loved it! In fact I thought I only had one Bryson left - Thunderbolt Kid - but I find I have a couple of word books from the last few years that I missed, and then I'll have read Everything Bryson.