Thursday 12 January 2012
Revisiting Books: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
When I say Bryson really packs in the facts, I don't actually mean facts about Shakespeare because there are disturbingly, and annoyingly, few of those. As Bryson puts it, "We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it." There are so many theories about every aspect of Shakespeare's life: what his relationship with his wife was like, whether or not he was bisexual, where he was during his last years, what influenced the writing of which play, and so many other things. What Bryson does is gently tear down all of these assumptions, theories and out and out fabrications, explaining why they're most likely wrong, or simply calling them out as fantasies of whoever thought them up. And all this in an amusing, but never mean, way.
So, it kind of sounds like Bryson's left with almost no actual information about Shakespeare, and that's more or less true. What we're left with is basically the barest facts about his life- when and where he was born and died, who he married and who is children were, and what he said in his will. Not massively interesting, but whilst debunking Shakespeare myths, Bryson also tells stories about other playwrights, and members of the theatre scene (essentially Shakespeare's contemporaries) as well as building up what I can only assume is a wholly accurate description of what living in London and working in the theatres would have felt like at the time. In doing this, Bryson immerses us in the world that Shakespeare inhabited, and so while we may not know what he ate for breakfast, or whether or not he liked cats, we can, thanks to Bryson, get a sense of of what it felt like to live in his world, which, I feel, is so much better.
And, of course, while we don't have all (or any of) the facts about Shakespeare, what we do have is a great body of work that, as Bryson points out, we are very lucky to have (Shakespeare's plays represent 15% of all the plays we have from that time, but many many more were written). And what can't be related to us through his writing that we could find elsewhere? Everyone else's views of Shakespeare would be just that- their own views, and since Shakespeare can't exactly be asked anything anymore, his writing has to be enough to tell us everything we need to know about him. And not to be too brutal about this, but what do we need to know about him, beyond the fact that he wrote these wonderful plays that we continue to love and appreciate today. Wanting to know anything else about the man himself really seems greedy and, to be brutally honest, unnecessary.
Basically, in its lack of facts, this book is well worth reading for the immersive experience of late 16th and early 17th century London. It doesn't pretend to know anything that isn't wholly provable, in this honesty, I think it's rare and also wonderful. It's also worth reading for Bryson's discussion of the words and phrases first written/recorded by Shakespeare, and for some fairly hilarious debunkings of some ludicrous candidates for the 'actual' writer of Shakespeare's plays. Basically, Bryson is fabulous, and I'm not sure anyone could have written better about the wonderfully elusive Shakespeare.
*Fun fact: Shakespeare first coined the word 'countless'