Shakespeare: The World As [A] Stage, by Bill Bryson


Shakespeare: The World As [A] Stage

Bill Bryson (2007)

ISBN: 9780060740221

In order to set the scene for the Shakespeare reading events hosted by Allie and Risa, I wanted to read something about William Shakespeare himself. Feeling fairly ignorant of his life and the time in which he lived, this biography by Bill Bryson provided the gentle introduction I was looking for.

This was an easy read and, as anyone who has read a book by this author will know, Bryson has a talent for finding the interesting details and building the story around them. Bryson admits in the first chapter that scholars actually know very little about Shakespeare’s life – not even how many plays he wrote, or in what order, let alone many personal details – and this immediately made me concerned about the content of the next 200 odd pages. However, there was no fluff here. This book is full of interesting facts about Shakespeare’s plays, his colleagues, and the historical context in which he lived and worked. To his credit, Bryson is very clear about what we actually know about Shakespeare, and what has been merely assumed over time – I can only imagine the amount of research that involved.

Here’s some of the interesting facts I learnt:

  • William Shakespeare wrote his own name with a range of different spellings (included Shagspere, haha!) but never actually as ‘Shakespeare’ – that is a spelling that was only adopted more recently. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary endorses the spelling ‘Shakspere’.
  • Despite his spelling difficulties, Shakespeare made an incredible contribution to the English language. An estimated 10% of all the most quotable utterances written/spoken in English have been traced back to him. Examples include the phrases ‘vanish into thin air’, ‘with bated breath’, and ‘budge an inch’.
  • Students nowadays have little to complain about – schooling in the late 16th century was arduous to say the least. Days usually ran from 6am – 6pm, with only 2 short refreshment breaks, 6 days a week (with the 7th day reserved for religious instruction). A disproportionate amount of the time was spent studying Latin. Those poor children.
  • Many have disputed Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays, for a variety of reasons. One book supporting an alternative author was published with an introduction by Nathaniel Hawthorne (of The Scarlet Letter fame). When criticised for his support of the book, Hawthorne admitted that he hadn’t actually read it! Poignantly, Hawthorne later wrote, “This shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody as long as [I] live”. It must have been quite a scandal at the time.

There were some parts of the book I thought could have been better. There were a number of theatres mentioned, some of which seemed to change names, and one of which was even translocated, and I found it difficult to follow. Maybe a map would have helped, or a more linear discussion of their histories. Similarly, Bryson sometimes mentions names in the book without explaining who they are or how they fit into the story. On more than one occasion, I incorrectly assumed this was because they had been mentioned previously and thus flicked back through the pages I’d already read to find them. This quickly became frustrating. I think it was an effort to be thorough in mentioning sources, but it was unnecessarily confusing. Finally, the front page of my book seems to have a typographical error -“Shakespeare: The World As Stage”. I assume that should read ‘…As A Stage’? A pretty unfortunate place for a spelling error!

All in all, this is an accessible and entertaining read. I have no wish to read another Shakespeare biography after this, although it has piqued my interest in the authorship debate (isn’t there a recent film about this?) and the monarchy of the 16th and 17th century. While this book is no literary masterpiece, it has obviously been well researched, and would suit anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare.

3 out of 5 stars.

Additional Reading:

Allie, at A Literary Odyssey, has written a great post on some of the nonfiction books available about Shakespeare.

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Welcome to Literarytangent!

Hello to all you wonderful people who are kind enough to visit the first post of my blogging ‘career’. Starting this blog has become my (only) New Year’s resolution for 2012. I am a newcomer to the book blogging community, having only found out they existed 6 months ago. However, having armed myself with the right tools (aka Google Reader), I am now hooked! I am certainly nervous about the amount of work involved in maintaining a blog, but I’m keen to find a way to forge more connections with other avid readers. My aim initially is a post a week.  We’ll see how that evolves.

So, do I read the sort of books you like? Well, my ‘go-to’ genres generally include literary fiction and classics, although I’ve been experimenting with some YA, historical fiction, and even a little Sci-Fi, on the recommendation of some of my favourite blogs.  Having spent the last ten years working to meet my career goals, I feel behind in my reading. I will therefore be reading both back-dated and more recently published books. As a disclaimer: I am completely ignorant in literary technique and therefore my reviews (ramblings) will focus only on my personal thoughts and emotions while reading. While I hope I can encourage you to read the books I enjoy, I urge you to seek other opinions before dismissing a book I dislike. I truly believe that sometimes those mismatches are as much to do with me as they are with the book.

What makes this blog different from other book blogs? Well, I can’t compete with the many other book blogs in terms of eloquently written or prolific book reviews. What I hope to offer is some of the story around the books. I believe in lifelong learning but need inspiration to research a subject further. Fiction books often provide that inspiration for me. I hope to share the results of some of my ‘literary tangents’ (see what I did there?!) as they happen.

Matt Banks / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To try to give this blogging attempt some structure, I’ve decided to sign up for a couple of reading challenges. The challenge that inspired me to finally commit to this endeavour was the Reading Shakespeare challenge, bravely orchestrated by Risa, of the blog Breadcrumb Reads. The aim is to read 12 Shakespeare plays during 2012, one per month. I’m also going to take this opportunity to learn a little more about William Shakespeare himself, and the time in which he lived. Conveniently, Allie, of A Literary Odyssey, is holding a Shakespeare reading month in January so I plan to double-dip on my January reading!

While the Bard will hopefully feature often on this blog over the next year, it will certainly be far from my only reading/blogging. Given my aspiration of one post per week, I have also signed up for the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge, hosted by Robin of My Two Blessings. I have never kept track of my reading before so I’m assuming that 52 books/year is doable. We’ll soon find out!

Over the last 6 months, I have also been trying to pick books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, in order to expand my reading. I have found some great books by using this list that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I’ll highlight those books as I mention them.

I am anticipating that this will be a steep learning curve, and I thank you for your patience while I figure it out. If you see something you dislike, or have some suggestions for improvements, please leave me a comment or send me an email (literarytangent@gmail.com). While I hope this blog will add to my reading experience, the main aim is to reach out and discuss books with people like you. I want to make this a place you enjoy visiting.

I can’t wait for 2012!! Happy Reading!

– Katie –

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