March 13, 2008

Mini-review: "Shakespeare: The World as Stage," by Bill Bryson

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Shakespeare: The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson
Shakespeare: The World as Stage (book; 2007)
By Bill Bryson
HarperCollins/Atlas / ISBN: 978-0-06-074022-1

No matter where on the planet you're from, it seems that there is at least one figure from the early Renaissance period (1400-1600 AD) who's had a huge and profound impact on your society's culture ever since: here in the English-speaking world, for example, that would be playwright and poet William Shakespeare, and in fact it's guessed that a huge majority of all new novels and movies coming out in English these days are based or inspired in one way or another on something from "The Bard"s old works. But that's the ultimate irony about Shakespeare; that although he is one of the only Elizabethan playwrights in history to have almost all his works preserved and reproduced over the ages (a main factor behind him being as influential as he now is), hardly any facts about the man himself exist, and in fact apart from his creative writing you would scarcely even know he was a physical human who actually once lived. Over the centuries, then, it has led to wild speculation about Shakespeare's life on the part of thousands, and an entire wing of academic study about the man so in the center of all Western artistic thought.

So for those like me who hardly know anything about the subject, Bill Bryson's new book Shakespeare: The World as Stage is going to be a godsend; it is a tight, funny 200-page overview of what exactly we factually know about the man and what we don't, peppered with a lot of anecdotes about the various crackpots over the years who have gotten obsessed with the question. And in fact this is the entire reason for the book to exist in the first place, is to give a short and tidy overview of a famous person's life; it is in fact the latest installment of James Atlas' "Eminent Lives" series, where for years he's been asking intriguing writers in other fields to pen short accessible works about various famous thinkers in history. For example, for those who didn't know, Bryson himself is mostly known in the publishing world for extremely sharp, funny and bitter travelogues; and here he puts that style to good use, taking us from one interesting historical and academic site to the next, as he with us unravels the mystery of this playwright we know so little about.

In fact, that's about the only big drawback to this book as well, if you want to look at it that way; that a 200-page manuscript simply isn't enough to fully get into the mysteries behind Shakespeare and his work, and that the main enjoyment Bryson's book contains is with all the astounding trivia-style facts he rattles off throughout. (Did you know that there are only fourteen words in existence actually written in Shakespeare's hand? That of 3,000 plays written in the Elizabethan Era, we only have printed copies of 200 of them, with nearly 40 of them being from Shakespeare himself? That his collected work contains 884,647 words, 15,785 question marks, and 10 instances of the term "dunghill?") As far as I'm concerned, though, that's what's to like about this book, not dislike; it's no scholarly treatise by any means, but Bryson's Shakespeare is definitely a pleasant little unintimidating ladder into the endless underground cavern which is Shakespearean study. And given that other titles in this series deal with such other fascinating characters from history as Thomas Jefferson, Muhammad, and Machiavelli, I'm also looking forward to reading more.

Out of 10: 9.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:02 AM, March 13, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |