Swans Commentary » swans.com April 21, 2008  



Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As Stage


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Bryson, Bill: Shakespeare: The World As Stage, Atlas Books, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-96-074022-1, 208 pages.


(Swans - April 21, 2008)   There are too many biographies about Shakespeare -- tens of thousands! They roll off the assembly-line like an endless parade of wooden solders. By and large, they rehash what is already known and has already been said time and time again. Occasionally, as with Gary Taylor, Park Honan, Stephen Greenblatt, a new vista comes into view; we have the rare pleasure of savoring "a new take." But by and large, they restate, reevaluate, or regurgitate information already excavated by others -- justifying the repetitions with a few small personal emphases or idiosyncratic reinterpretations, but almost never with new evidence.

Therefore, a slim volume of less than 200 pages that condenses everything we already know and provides a panoramic view of a subject that is prone to microscopic examinations is as welcome as "the flowers that bloom in the Spring." Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, The World as Stage does precisely that. It stacks together all the great blocks of knowledge we already have of the Bard and metamorphoses them into a dainty box of chocolates that we can munch at our leisure.

Although much is incorporated, nothing is scanted. We get all the apocryphal anecdotes of the young boy from Stratford salted with the skepticism all those fairy tales deserve. In addition, we also get some historical information that has now achieved the status of "hard facts." There are very few of these and Bryson judicially evaluates them for us without bias and with illuminating brevity. The Lost Years, l585 to 1592, contain all the assumptions -- false, fanciful, and foolish -- about which former biographers have often speculated and readers are permitted to opt for whichever verities they choose. The London Years are succinctly chronicled as we watch the stumbling, starry-eyed actor gradually become the resident playwright of the Globe, its part-owner, probably its "director," eventually its Elizabethan superstar. It all happens as quickly as the rendition of a Shakespearean classic performed by The Reduced Shakespeare Company -- in about ten minutes flat. But it still conveys nuance and sound critiques of what is being discussed because Bryson, although new to Shakespeare, is an experienced comic writer (A Walk In The Woods, I'm A Stranger Here Myself, A Short History of Nearly Everything) and so has learned that "brevity" being "the soul of wit," it doesn't pay to malinger over facts that have already been masticated and remasticated. It is enough to sprinkle them lightly with a watering can rather than drown them with a fire hose.

Bryson hits all the high spots of the playwright's "Year of Fame" (1596-1603) and just when you feel he has bypassed the controversies, he devotes an illuminating chapter to the bevy of "claimants" for Shakespeare's mantle -- whipping though Bacon, de Vere, Marlowe, The Earl of Darby, and several other mawkish contenders. Pointedly, he dispenses with all of them simply by quoting the contenders incriminating names: J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman, and George M. Battey -- not neglecting the oddball Delia Bacon, the deluded advocate of Sir Francis Bacon who "retreated into insanity....and died peacefully but unhappily under institutional care in 1859 believing she was the Holy Ghost." In a deft breakdown of all the Shakespeare wannabes, Bryson comes down firmly for the man we all know and revere, writing: "Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man -- whoever he was."

The only slight longeur in this fleet little book is the chapter that deals with the seventy-nine First Folios stashed away in The Folger Shakespeare Library, the niceties of l6th and 17th century typography and differences between the quartos and Hemminges and Condell's definitive publication of eighteen of Shakespeare's original works, which, according to Bryson, are themselves somewhat flawed and open to different interpretations. In engendering boredom, typographical analyses are, in my view, second only to "claimant" controversies. Mercifully, Bryson doesn't malinger inordinately on these subjects, but long enough for one to check one's wrist watch and wonder when the next scene will be coming along.

There is nothing staggeringly original in Bryson's little book. It is essentially a synthesis of Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About William Shakespeare without wading through Johnson, Coleridge, Rowse, Rosenbaum, Schoenbaum, Kermode, Honan, Wells, and Edmondson. A kind of Classic Comics version of the Shakespearian saga with just enough information to allow you to hold your own in a debate or trump up a short paper for a college conference. And I don't mean to belittle the book by stressing its minimalism. On the contrary, it is sort of amazing how much can be packed into one hundred and ninety-six pages without losing anything truly essential. If anything, it is a book that chastens those hernia-making bios that feel the need to trudge through miles of thick underbrush instead of providing a fleet, birds-eye view of the entire terrain.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 21, 2008