Shakespeare, The World as Stage - Bill Bryson (2007)

Bryson himself begins this book by asking, "why another book on Shakespeare?" His answer was something like, "it doesn't, but this series does," for Bryson is writing for the "Eminent Lives" series of biographies. Given, however, that the book was written and published, the question that you, the discerning reader, must ask yourself is this: why should I read this book on Shakespeare rather than one of the seven thousand (by Bryson's count) other books on Shakespeare that are in the Library of Congress? I'll give you four reasons.

First, it's shorter than many of them. This is the case for a couple of reasons. Bryson is writing for a general rather than academic audience, and is thus engaging in a sort of general overview rather than attempting to prove a point. He is also attempting to stick mostly to what is actually known, rather than engaging is speculation. Since what is actually is known about Shakespeare's life is very little the book is somewhat short, 196 pages. Finally, it is a broad general overview with a select bibliography for those who want more detail on any given point, thus he doesn't go into great detail on most points.

Second, Bryson writes well, very well. Many of the other books are written by people who are something else (scholar, teacher, actor, crank) first and writers second. Bryson is a writer first. The result is a very readable and accessible book. Felicitous phrases abound, "Facts are surprisingly delible things ..." "There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it." are two examples. This is not to say that there are not some other excellent books on Shakespeare written by excellent writers, some of whom have extensive academic credentials! (Anthony Burgess comes immediately to mind.)

Third, Bryson provides a good, simple overview of a lot of Shakespeare scholarship, even when it is "5 percent fact and 95% conjecture," as Bryson quotes an unnamed Shakespeare scholar on the subject of Shakespeare biographies. This provides a good hook for those who are interested in delving deeper.

Fourth, he holds no truck with the anti-Stratfordians. While he is polite about it, he states clearly and concisely the central flaw with the anti-Stratfordian position. (For those unaware of it, this is the general term for those who believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works. A remarkably large number of people, some of whom are quite intelligent and educated have fallen prey to this pernicious philosophy.) Bryson's comment on pg. 182 is, "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."

There are a lot of books on Shakespeare out there, and many focus on some detail, trying to explain some facet of Shakespeare's life or work. Some of those books are very good indeed, but the sheer number is overwhelming. For those who are not devoted Shakespearian scholars, something a little more general and little more accessible is the way to go. Bryson's book fills that niche admirably. Even for those who do have a deeper interest in Shakespeare, this book is a worthy addition to a bookshelf and good read, providing a one-stop shop for general data. My only quibble is that an index would be a welcome addition, especially for those in the latter category.

Overall Grade: B+

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