Friday, November 25, 2011

Do You Know Will?


Last week, I finished reading Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson. I love Bill Bryson. I've read many of his travel books that take me to the Appalachian Trail, across the USA in a car, and travelling through England. Even though several were read many years ago, I still remember details like him leaving his walking stick against a tree, his description of the Cliffs of Dover, and the multitude of neon signs across America. I always laugh out loud and am entertained throughout the book.

His book about Shakespeare is a biography, part of a series on eminent lives written by noteworthy authors. It's brief at 196 pages and full of humor and descriptions and great analysis. He takes a lot of information about what people have said and written about Shakespeare over the years and tells you what can be backed up by evidence and what is speculation. Mostly everything is speculation since there are few know/surviving facts about Shakespeare and his life. 

Bryson does a fantastic job of setting you in the context of Shakespeare's life: who his parents and family were; what Stratford-Upon-Avon and London looked like when he lived there; what the economic, political, and religious issues were; what people ate, how they lived, what laws and taxes citizens had to pay; and what the cultural scene was, especially that of the theater. I felt like I knew more about Shakespeare just by understanding a little bit more about these things.

The last chapter is called "Claimants" and Bryson takes all the conspiracy theories, speculations, and other claims of who authored Shakespeare's work (because how could one man possibly written all these fantastic works by himself) and carefully shows why none of them can be proved and why they are unlikely. The following was one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole book:

"So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment - actually all of it, every bit - involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact. Shakespeare "never owned a book," a writer for the New York Times gravely informed readers in one doubting article in 2002. The statement cannot actually be refuted, for we know nothing about his incidental possessions. But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probable that what is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books."

Bryson also points out that no one questioned Shakespeare’s authorship during the first 200 years after his death, even as his plays remained popular during that time.

This book is worth the read; entertaining and educational. It didn’t take long to get through it.

Next up: I’ve started The Hunger Games. I’m only about 3 chapters in, but I was hooked by the beginning of chapter 2. (And seeing the trailer didn’t hurt either.)