Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare

Reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare reminded me of why I love his writing so much. Bryson’s book is one for people (like me) who probably won’t ever read a heavy-duty book of Shakespeare scholarship, but as he notes what you can write about Shakespeare is pretty slim. We don’t know a lot about the man, so much of Bryson’s book is about Shakespeare’s times, writers contemporary to Shakespeare (and what we know about them, which often isn’t much), and the disagreements of Shakespeare scholarship. His skill here isn’t in uncovering new facts, but to sum up what’s come before and to look at it with a critical eye.* And, as always, his humor makes the book far more readable than I would have expected 200 pages on Shakespeare to be, as when he refers to the Puritans’ closing of the London theaters as a “coup of joylessness.”

“His expression is confident, serenly rakish. This is not a man, you sense, to whom you would lightly entrust a wife or grown daughter” (2).

Because we know so little about Shakespeare, Bryson writes extensively about Shakespeare’s times. These were some of my favorite parts of the book, and they were also some of the most illuminating. I grew up, for instance, knowing that Shakespeare grew up in lower-class circumstances, that he had an illiterate father and that the extent of his own education wasn’t great. But as Bryson writes, Shakespeare’s father (despite some debt problems later in his career) was actually a “popular and respected fellow” in Stratford, holding many municipal positions including high bailiff (mayor). And statements of his father’s illiteracy are based, as are so many assumptions about Shakespeare’s life, only on a lack of evidence to the contrary. Though Shakespeare’s father signed papers with a mark, many literate men of his time did the same; and the municipal positions to which he rose suggest literacy.

Much of Shakespeare’s life is marked, from our view, by how little is known about it. Bryson has to write an entire chapter on Shakespeare’s “lost years,” from 1585 to 1592, about which we know nothing; and we know little more about his other years, from the order in which he wrote his plays to how he became a successful playwright in the first place. Bryson fills in these dry areas with detail about Stratford, London, politics and religion of the time, and the role of theaters and plays as entertainment at the time. (Did you know that The Globe was the first playhouse exclusively dedicated to plays? Others were arenas for such “sports” as bear baiting when plays weren’t being run. Or that plays, “even the solemn ones, traditionally ended with a jig as a kind of bonus entertainment” [75]?)

"...an arrestingly...mediocre piece of work. ...One eye is bigger than the other. The mouth is curiously mispositioned. The hair is longer on one side of the subject's head than the other, and the head itself is out of proportion to the body and seems to float off the shoulders, like a balloon" (4).

Shakespeare marks some of the ways in which current literary culture is different from that of Shakespeare’s time. I just started reading a collection of “retold” fairy tales, a concept that the book’s editors note is strange to many contemporary readers. Such retellings of old stories were once the norm, though. Bryson writes, to “Elizabethan playwrights plots and characters were common property,” and “Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first” (98). Anyone who’s read a couple of Shakespeare’s plays would be hard-pressed to term Shakespeare’s plots original, so it’s refreshing to have Bryson’s description of “the way things were” back in Shakespeare’s time. Originality wasn’t expected, and as Bryson notes, when Shakespeare rewrote a story he elevated middling works to great art.

Beginning with Shakespeare’s father, Bryson again and again shows that many of the things we assume to be true about Shakespeare are based merely upon a lack of evidence in the other direction. That is, there’s no evidence either way, so scholars have leaned in directions of their own inclination; taking from his relatively low birth, for example, that he could not have written the plays he wrote. I’ve always been aware that many people believe the Shakespeare of Stratford wasn’t the same man who wrote the plays or sonnets under his name, but have never done any reading into this; it’s just been something that I’ve accepted as a possibility. But Bryson puts this school of scholars to rest pretty handily in the book’s last chapter, painting them as a string of buffoons who have found no evidence for any of their contentions, but simply the “possibility” that so-and-so had the time/education/what-have-you to have written Shakespeare’s works.

"It was executed by a mason named Gheerart Janssen ...who... may well have seen Shakespeare in life - thought one rather hopes not, as the Shakespeare he portrays is a puffy-faced, self-satisfied figure, with, as Mark Twain memorably put it, the 'deep, deep, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder'" (6).

Bryson picks apart each of the major “Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare” arguments, and in doing so points to the way such arguments belittle what remains of Shakespeare’s work. Because the arguments, at end, boil down to the same thing: that a man of provincial upbringing and education, who was neither upper-class nor (probably) well-traveled, could not possibly have written all the works attributed to him. That one such man did write Othello, King Lear and Hamlet is, as Bryson writes, the mark of genius; and after 200 pages spent with Bryson picking apart Shakespeare’s language (do you know how many new words he introduced to English? A lot.) and exploring the miracle of the First Folio’s publication (I term it so because Shakespeare’s works make up about 15% of those surviving from the period; without the First Folio, most of his plays would have been lost), I’m inclined to stick with Bryson’s view.

Bryson’s evident appreciation for and love of Shakespeare comes through on every page of the book, and coupled with his research on the publication of the First Folio and the fates of many celebrated plays of the day not by Shakespeare, I finished feeling fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s work made it to the present day. Which, I suspect, is exactly what Bryson intended.

* Is it bad that writing this is making me really, really want to watch Shakespeare in Love?

P.S. God, I didn’t know where to stick this in the review, I got so caught up in swooning over Bryson and feeling “fortunate” that we still have Shakespeare’s work around. The book could only be better if there were illustrations, so that when Bryson describes a portrait of Shakespeare, or a drawing of a London theater, I wouldn’t have to rack my memory for the image, or rush to google.

As a helpful guide to readers, I have included scattered in this post the three likenesses of Shakespeare that Bryson describes in his book.



Bill Brysons is as much a biography of Shakespeare as it is a portrait of Elizabethan England and its theatre and a history of Shakespearean scholarship. I used to attribute my impression that Shakespeare was shrouded in mystery to the fact that I didnt grow up in an English-speaking country. Ive always known of Shakespeare of course but I didnt read him until late and didnt study him in school until my second university degree.

Comment by Murray E. Roth

Can’t wait to read this one. I just bought a copy.

Love that balloon painting! :lol:

Comment by Jillian

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