27 December 2007

"Having nothing, nothing can he lose." Bill Bryson's Shakespeare

I took a course on Shakespeare in high school, many, many years back. I've been to Stratford-upon-Avon twice now. Even seen Hamlet performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. One summer, my wife and I took the short drive over to Ashland, Oregon, spent the night in a local B&B and caught Macbeth (I think) via the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. (My wife returned as chaperone for a classfull of 8th graders last fall to see Taming of the Shrew.)

Despite the passing familiarity with William Shakespeare, I don't know that I've ever heard much of his personal history, save for the tourist-drivel bandied about in the Stratford theme park environment. When Bill Bryson stepped into the fray, I figured his wit and casual style would open the door a touch to Shakespeare's life. And so it did, though not exactly as I thunk.

The first 10 pages of Bryson's bio of the Bard lay the groundwork: Almost nothing is known of Shakespeare's life. There are virtually no records, no writings, no accounts from Shakespeare himself nor his contemporaries. There are years where we have absolutely no idea where he was or what he was doing. Short of his plays and his poetry, his name alone appears in a handful of court proceedings and we have six of his signatures - all of them signed with different spellings. Historians can't even be certain that two of the three existing portraits of William Shakespeare are, in fact, portraits of William Shakespeare.

That's it. From an historical standpoint, there is nothing to base a biography upon other than conjecture...though many have tried.

No one even cared enough to attempt a biography of Shakespeare 'til nearly two centuries after his death, and by then near all the materials that might've contributed were gone to the ages or the massive London fire of 1660. The biographies written in the past couple hundred years plucked supposition, innuendo, educated guesses, and wishful thinking out of thin air, inventing the persona we recognize today as the world's greatest playwright.

Yet Bryson crafts an interesting story that illuminates Shakespeare by providing a biography of the times. He's revealed the world Shakespeare lived in through other sources, and told the story of how an actor & playwright likely lived in England at the turn of the 16-17th centuries. All told, a good book...a good Christmas-holiday-off kind of read. Short, interesting, enlightening without being difficult.

1 comment:

David said...

I enjoyed reading this review. You have a crisp and engaging writing style.

I want to read this book now.