Saturday, January 19, 2008

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

At the start of Shakespeare Bill Bryson apologises for the fact that there is not much to tell. Every aspect of the bard’s physical presence on the planet seems to be shrouded in doubt and mystery. We don’t even know what he looked like. We don’t know much about where he lived, or what he did with his time, apart from write and act. And, though we think we know a reasonable amount about what Will wrote, we know next to nothing about how his works were performed, alongside zero about what role the writer, himself, performed.

So, having apologised for presenting a non-book with a non-story, Bill Bryson proceeds to fill two hundred pages with pure, unadulterated delight. The text provides context, detail and background. It is less than adulatory on the surface, apparently determined to stay within the bounds of the known and the probable. But when Bill Bryson does offer opinion, he reveals a clear and deeply felt love and admiration, almost worship, for his subject.

The book is an absolute joy from beginning to end. Perhaps there really aren’t any new facts or figures to discover, but Bill Bryson’s account of Shakespeare’s life has enough detail, biographical, critical and contextual, to offer as rounded a picture of the writer as we are likely to get. There are numerous Bryson humorous asides, of course, and these only add to the clarity of the piece.

In this slim work, Bryson offers a potted biography, snippets of literary criticism, some illuminating linguistics, much associated history - both of the era and the scholarship, and even a quick guided tour of the pretenders to the myth.

By the end the reader can only marvel at how much an assumed bedrock of national culture and identity could have been laid down by the sedimentation of so little material. But then, of course, there’s the works, which speak for themselves.

View this book on amazon
Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives)

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