Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

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This is the illustrated edition of Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare (2009 from the 2007 text), which is one of the best no-accounts of any of the no-accounts concerning the Bard’s life.

Bryson always speaks to me in a gentle manner albeit with a subtle tongue-in-cheek, especially here as he takes us for a walk through signatures, plays, lives, deaths, and sundry other items that all lead us to the same conclusive conclusion: We just don’t know! Sure, we can conjecture through all of the thousands of books about Shakey, but in the final analysis, we just don’t know! We just can’t prove!¬† Just like other great men who have changed our lives and perspectives – think Jesus, thing Buddha, et al – we know what they said, but we have no proof about their actual existences (and even then, we do not know for sure what each really said, if anything at all)

Even in the plays and poems of Shakespeare: We know nothing! Corrupt editions, bad typesetting, poor handwriting, unregulated spelling and grammar, et al againus, still we know nothing for sure!

The beauty of the world…the paragon of animals! (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2)

Bryson illustrates, step-by-step, the marvels in reshaping history with every new iota of data found, or how to weave a whole history out of nothing.

As always, as well, the minutiae he digs up is always of great trivial knowledge (like in his At Home or in The History of Nearly Everything). One example in this book is about tobacco:

Tobacco, introduced to London the year after Shakespeare’s birth, was a luxury at first but soon gained such widespread popularity that by the end of the century there were no fewer than seven thousand tobacconists in the city. It was employed not only for pleasure but as a treatment for a broad range of complaints including venereal disease, migraine and even bad breath, and was seen as such a reliable prophylactic against plague that even small children were encouraged to use it. For a time pupils at Eton faced a beating if caught neglecting their tobacco. (page 81)

For me, it is factoidal passages such as this that makes each Brysonian expedition a treasure trove: in the end, who even cares if we know nothing about the main topic? It is the milieu of the times that actually has any true effect at all.

Regarding theatrical history and evolution, here are factoids just as engaging as the those concerning the possible life of this playwright;

  • at this time, theater began its true rise as an public entertainment
  • but because of plagues, theaters were closed for extended periods of time
  • due to the want and competition between theaters, new plays always were in demand, and performed but only a few times
  • plays were strictly regulated by the Master of Revels
  • actors had to remember many more lines and characters due to small troupes, increased number of characters, and high variety in turnover
  • even in times of great poverty and plague and disasters, theatergoers continued to pour in no matter what the cost (similar to the movie boom during the depression and world wars of 20th century America).

Theatres¬† boomed in the years just after Shakespeare’s death, even more so than they had in his lifetime. By 1631, seventeen of them were in operation around London. The good years didn’t last long, however. By 1642, when the Puritans shut them down, just six remained – three amphitheatres and three halls. Theatres would never again appeal to so wide a spectrum of society, or be such a universal pastime. (page 202)

By the time Bryson comes to the end of this polemical investigation – amidst the speculations, rumours, and red herrings concerning Shakespeare’s personal life and written legacy, he can emphatically conclude: “Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare was unquestionably that man – whoever he was.” (page 247)

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