Shakespeare: The World As [A] Stage
Bill Bryson (2007)
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.
Allie, at A Literary Odyssey, has written a great post on some of the nonfiction books available about Shakespeare.