William Shakespeare: The World as Stage – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is an old friend. His approach to history makes the standard tome all the more flat and dull by comparison – Bryson knows his stuff well enough to not only present it to an audience but to play with it, to have fun with it, to make it fun. He genuinely loves his subjects, and it is infectious. He’s like the teacher you always hoped to get – the brilliant, funny, cool one who (to use a real example) sat cross-legged on the table at the front of the room and told the most amazing stories and made you sorry when the class was over, rather than the one who turned the lights off and showed irrelevant slides to a group of uninterested and often napping art students at the deadly time of 3:00 in the afternoon.

With The World as Stage, Bryson has succumbed to the lure of adding to the groaning shelves of Shakespeare biography, with the excuse (if he needs one) that herein will lie

The Chandos portrait

only what is known beyond doubt. Shakespeare biography is, he tells us, 90% conjecture, and about 5% fact; here he tries to gather together “just the facts” (I said that, he didn’t), and talk about where they originated and about the conjecture they’ve sparked and the probabilities therein.

For example, he begins with the visual image of Shakespeare as we know it. He efficiently dissects the three images most closely associated with him, the three on which all others are based: the Chandos portrait (which may not be Shakespeare); the engraving which appeared as the frontispiece of the First Folio (which is bloody awful); and the bust that is part of his memorial (many of the details of which have been obliterated). Did he look like any or all of these? Maybe. What, exactly, did he look like? We don’t really know.

The Cobbe portrait, the Chandos, and the Droeshout engraving

When was he born, and where? We’re not sure.

Shakespeare’s birthplace – maybe

How did he do in school, and what exactly did he study? We don’t even know that he went – though it’s probable.

How was his marriage to Anne Hathaway? We have no idea – we don’t even know that “Anne” was her name; her father’s will refers to her as Agnes. I never knew that.

The Cobbe portrait

And so forth. Data is so very scarce for many reasons. It’s been four hundred years; records have deteriorated or gone up in flames; what records there are can be next to impossible to locate and once located to read and/or decipher. Shakespeare’s name was spelled dozens of different ways, including by himself, and never “Shakespeare”. Even with all that, a researcher simply can’t expect so very many mentions of Shakespeare in the public record: unless he was getting married, baptizing a child, or involved in an arrest or lawsuit (or dying), there simply would be no official documentation. If for no other reason, I would treasure this book for two things: first was the story of the husband and wife team of Charles and Hulda Wallace who, driven in the early 1900’s by the husband’s obsession with Shakespeare, spent 18 hour days poring over the public record from Will’s lifetime and made some discoveries (and then he lost his mind and went paranoiac and got into oil). I know it marks me out as a bit freaky, but I’ll admit it anyway: I would give a lot to be able to go and spend 18 hours a day studying cramped and often faded and illegible 16th century documents looking for mentions of Shakespeare. Sounds like a dream job. Seriously. The second gift Bryson gives me in this is the concept that if there really was a Love’s Labours Won, there were probably enough copies made that it could still be found one day. (Way to reduce a Shakespeare geek to tears, Bryson.) (Sadly, in the interview which serves as Chapter 10, he contradicts that. But hope springs, and all that.)

I call myself a Shakespeare geek, and probably shouldn’t; for me it refers to my deep affection and fascination for the man and his work – thirst for knowledge, not necessarily possession of knowledge. I know more than the average bear, but not enough to truly qualify me as a geek. For example, I had no idea that Will’s brother Edmund was an actor (and died at only 27 in the same year as their mother, both of unknown causes). I also didn’t know Walt Whitman was a rabid anti-Stratfordian (which Bryson doesn’t mention, but which I discovered in related reading.) I do know enough not to trust any single source – not even Bill Bryson.

Bill Bryson reads his own words, and I enjoy his voice, lightly deep, young and humorous and pleasant. He reads naturally and easily, with healthy pauses where they’re needed and not where they are not. And it’s fun to listen to the British influence on his accent (he was born in Des Moines, lived there from 1977 to 1995, moved back to the US, then returned to England in ’03, where he remains). It’s not wholly a British accent, but there is British in it; I feel like Sherlock Holmes tracing his travels through his enunciation, except that I’m going about it backwards.

Much as I enjoy Bryson’s reading, though, I’m not sure audio is the best format for this, for me. For a book like this I need to be able to flip back and see what year the will was found, and remind myself of names of the Folger Library archivists Bryson talked to, and how many Shakespeare-related publications he mentioned were there, and so on. It’s a lot harder to do this with audio, even the comparatively flexible medium of a digital file on my iPod. Also, I suspect there are illustrations in the tangible editions; there usually is an insert in exactly this sort of book.

If for no other reason, I owe Bill Bryson for a wonderful quote which I am adopting. I may have it tattooed somewhere. Written in a letter to a friend upon having written a preface to Delia Bacon’s dense and nutty anti-Stratfordian book (without having read it): “This shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody again as long as I live.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne. (In L.M. Montgomery, the only people who share my last name are nasty cows. In The World as Stage, the city of my birth is the home and gravesite of Delia Bacon. *sigh*) I kind of want to go lay Hawthorne’s quote, in illuminated calligraphy and elaborately framed, on her grave. (I just might.)

Bryson devotes a chapter – a funny, sardonic, bubble-popping chapter – to what is often called the Authorship Question. To wit: that actor guy who couldn’t even spell his own name couldn’t have written the finest works in the English language. Bryson happily takes that concept apart, and then takes its component pieces apart. I’m a Stratfordian, and … honestly, as a rock-solid Stratfordian, I’ll admit, I have a sneaking affection for the Oxfordian theory of authorship. It’s fun. It’s balderdash, but it is fun. Not, however as much fun as the Marlovian theory – who doesn’t love the idea of someone faking his death so as to become a better spy, as well as to go off and write the finest plays and poetry the English language has ever produced? I would love to play with that story … But the Kit-Marlowe-didn’t-die-at-Deptford story is mostly wishful thinking for me, because I have an unaccountable fondness for the man.

But when all is said and done, I can only marvel at the insistence of so many otherwise intelligent people that Shakespeare could not have had the education or breadth of experience to write his plays. First of all – no one knows that. Bill Bryson takes great pains to enumerate all the things we do not know about William Shakespeare. (And even at that we know more about him than about 99% of his contemporaries.) Second of all … A large plank in the platform of many of the Theorists is that the author of the plays has to have been a lawyer because of the extent to which the law is referenced in the plays, and/or has to have traveled extensively because of the non-English settings of so many plays … et cetera. I can only conclude that the people who hold those beliefs have never written fiction. I know next to nothing about cars, but if I decided to create a character like Mercedes Thompson I could crack a book or talk to a mechanic (or use the internet), and present a reasonable simulation of expertise. I am not now nor ever have been a forensic analyst, but I can talk (within very strict limits) about petechial hemorrhaging and lividity and epithelial cells and loops and whorls and so on without making a total fool of myself, because of exposure to stories about forensic analysts. If I needed more artistic verisimilitude for an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, I could – again – crack a book or talk to a CSI (or wander the internet). If I want to set a book in Katmandu, I don’t have to go there; it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do so, but – – it’s called “research”.

Oddly, it’s a defense I haven’t seen used in what I’ve read about the Authorship Question. It just seems so obvious…

Shakespeare was not writing in a vacuum, all alone and armed only with his own direct experience. If fiction was written under those rules, science fiction, fantasy, most mystery, and a large percentage of non-subgenre novels would be impossible. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes a wonderful account of calling up a local vintner to ask what the wire gadget is called that anchors the cork in a champagne bottle. As she points out, most people are delighted to talk about their vocations. All those references to the law? Shakespeare went out and observed, and read, and talked to lawyers. All those Italian settings? Shakespeare went out and read, and talked to sailors and other travelers (and either did not pay close attention or got bad information, as his geography is way off in several cases). Every single one of the objections that “Shakespeare couldn’t have known that” can be knocked down with two simple sentences: “We don’t know what he knew”, and “If he didn’t know, he asked”. It’s just all so foolish.

What’s rather alarming, reading about the theories, is reading in turn about this new movie that’s just come out, “Anonymous”. (Which, not to be obtuse about it, is rather an idiotic name, isn’t it, if the theory is that in order to disseminate his work Edward DeVere made use of some guy named Shakespeare as a front for the plays? They’re not by “Anonymous”, after all.) It’s part of the Oxfordian cabal’s arsenal – and the worrying bit is that they are spreading high school and college study guides as far and wide as they can. Not, from what I understand, insisting that DeVere was actually the author, but raising the question suggestively. “Make your own decision,” they seem to say, “was it Sir Edward DeVere 17th Earl of Oxford … or was it that guy Wilm Shaksper whose father made gloves?”

In the end, for me the Authorship Question has the kind of interest of one of those alternate histories: what if the South had won the Civil War, or if Hitler had won WWII? Or (not that I’ve seen this one, yet) what if the moon really was made of green cheese? The South and Hitler didn’t, and the moon isn’t, and while what-if’s are entertaining, they’re not otherwise productive.

And, in the end, did the world desperately need one more book about Shakespeare? Well, no. But am I for one happier because Bill Bryson wrote one? Yeah. I am.

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6 Responses to William Shakespeare: The World as Stage – Bill Bryson

  1. If you call yourself a Shakespeare Geek, I strongly suggest you come hang out with us at http://www.ShakespeareGeek.com. I got a lot of people for you to meet who feel the exact same way you do. ;)

  2. stewartry says:

    That sounds like a plan – thank you!

  3. Pingback: Anonymous is interesting, but could have been great– « nediunedited

  4. Pingback: The most tragicall comedie or comicall tragedie of Anonymous « Stewartry

  5. Pingback: The anti-teacher, anti-lawyer, anti-education, anti-math, anti-civil rights truth behind “Kill all the lawyers” « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

  6. stewartry says:

    Reblogged this on Stewartry and commented:

    Reblogging this from a while back in celebration of Shakespeare Day … in lieu of new material …

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