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Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Shakespeare: The World as Stage

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Shakespeare: The World as Stage

4/5 (30 évaluations)
213 pages
3 heures
Apr 26, 2016


Bill Bryson’s bestselling biography of William Shakespeare takes the reader on an enthralling tour through Elizabethan England and the eccentricities of Shakespearean scholarship—updated with a new introduction by the author to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself. His Shakespeare is like no one else's—the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

Apr 26, 2016

À propos de l'auteur

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include One Summer, A Short History of Nearly Everything, At Home, A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here nor There, Made in America, and The Mother Tongue. He lives in England with his wife.

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Shakespeare - Bill Bryson

Eminent Lives, a series of brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures, joins a long tradition in this lively form, from Plutarch’s Lives to Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Pairing great subjects with writers known for their strong sensibilities and sharp, lively points of view, the Eminent Lives are ideal introductions designed to appeal to the general reader, the student, and the scholar. To preserve a becoming brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant, wrote Strachey: That, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.


IN ADDITION TO THE kindly and patient interviewees cited in the text, I am grateful to the following for their generous assistance: Mario Aleppo, Anna Bulow, Charles Elliott, Will Francis, Emma French, Peter Furtado, Carol Heaton, Gerald Howard, Jonathan Levi, Jacqui Shepard, Paulette Thompson, and Ed Weisman. I am especially indebted to Professor Stanley Wells and Dr. Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon for generously reviewing the manuscript and suggesting many corrections and prudent qualifications, though of course any errors that remain are mine alone. Special thanks also to James Atlas for his enthusiastic encouragement throughout, and to the astute and kindly copy editors Robert Lacey and Sue Llewellyn. As always, and above all, my greatest debt and most heartfelt thanks go to my dear wife, Cynthia.


To Finley and Molly and in memory of Maisie





Chapter One: In Search of William Shakespeare

Chapter Two: The Early Years, 1564–1585

Chapter Three: The Lost Years, 1585–1592

Chapter Four: In London

Chapter Five: The Plays

Chapter Six: Years of Fame, 1596–1603

Chapter Seven: The Reign of King James, 1603–1616

Chapter Eight: Death

Chapter Nine: Claimants

Selected Bibliography

About the Author

Books in the Eminent Lives Series

Also by Bill Bryson

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About the Publisher


A FEW YEARS AGO, a kindly New York publisher named James Atlas approached me out of the blue and asked me if I would like to write a biography for a series of books he was launching, to be called Eminent Lives.

Each book in the series was to be about forty thousand words, considerably less than half the length of a conventional biography. The idea was that each book would be long enough to have some substance while yet remaining concise.

James sent me a list of the subjects that had already been assigned. I was disappointed to find that nearly all the figures that jumped to my mind as candidates had already been taken. It was only when I went through the list a second time that I realized that no one had selected William Shakespeare, and impetuously I offered to take him on. To my surprise, and slight subsequent panic, James readily assented.

I hardly need point out that I am not a Shakespearean authority, but luckily Britain is full of people who are, and prudently I turned to them. The book that follows has almost nothing to do with what I think of William Shakespeare (though I admire him very much, of course), but is instead about what I learned of William Shakespeare from people who have spent lifetimes studying and thinking about him. I remain immensely grateful to them all, in particular to the great and scholarly Stanley Wells, now retired as chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

What is perhaps most extraordinary about William Shakespeare, bearing in mind that he has been dead for four hundred years, is how lively his world remains. Hardly a month goes by that there isn’t some fairly momentous claim or discovery relating to his life or work—never more or so perhaps than in 2015 when a South African academic named Francis Thackeray suggested that Shakespeare may have filled the bowl of his little clay pipe with marijuana and possibly even cocaine. The assertion is based on an analysis of pipe remains found in the garden of New Place, Shakespeare’s last home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Never mind that nobody knows whether Shakespeare ever actually smoked a pipe or whether the pipe fragments belonged to him or his gardener or someone who owned the property later. Still, if it turns out that anybody in Elizabethan England was smoking cannabis and cocaine, that would be arresting news indeed, and it has to be said that no one would have examined the pipe fragments so fastidiously had there not been a Shakespeare connection.

Three other rather more notable events have bounced into the world of Shakespearean scholarship since this volume was first published and should perhaps be mentioned here. The most exciting—not to say incendiary—was the announcement in 2009 by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust that it had acquired a new and definitive portrait of William Shakespeare.

Called the Cobbe portrait, it is the work of an unknown artist, and shows a youthful, rather dashing man of healthy complexion, dapper attire, and a keen air of intelligence and sensitivity, all of which stands in sharp contrast to the other existing likenesses said to be of Shakespeare. The painting had previously hung in the Cobbe family ancestral home near Dublin and was long thought to be a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh.

I was skeptical indeed to begin with, Stanley Wells told me at the time of the unveiling. There are a lot of paintings that have been claimed to be of William Shakespeare on pretty dubious grounds. But the more I considered the evidence for this one, the more I grew persuaded. I would say I am ninety percent convinced now it is genuine.

It is a terribly exciting thought. Unfortunately, it has also encountered a good deal of criticism. Sir Roy Strong, the art historian, dismissed claims for the portrait’s authenticity as codswallop. Katherine Duncan-Jones of Oxford University thought the man in the portrait too grand and courtier-like to be Shakespeare and, in a long, critical article for the Times Literary Supplement, characterized the evidence as not hugely compelling. She suggested it was a portrait of a Sir Thomas Overbury.

At about the same time that the Cobbe portrait came to light, archaeologists from the Museum of London caused much scholarly excitement by announcing the discovery of the foundations of London’s first purpose-built theater on the site of a disused warehouse in Shoreditch in east London. Built in 1576 and so indubitably original that it was called simply the Theatre, it is the oldest theater positively associated with Shakespeare and probably was where Romeo and Juliet was first performed.

Soon afterward, archaeologists also found the foundations of a nearby theater, with similar Shakespeare connections, called the Curtain. Only modest fragments of both theaters survive, but so little is known about the physical aspects of Elizabethan theaters that even the discovery of some small ruins of brick and stone is a matter of excitement and value.

Also causing a pleasant stir was the rediscovery and return to Durham University of a missing First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays taken from the university library by a light-fingered opportunist in 1998. It had been gone for so long that most people had assumed it to be lost forever. Happily, the volume was sent for a valuation to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where it was recognized as the missing Durham volume. The Folger alerted the FBI and a man named Raymond Scott was arrested, tried, and eventually sentenced to eight years in prison for the theft.

The folio, mercifully undamaged, is now back in the university library on Palace Green in Durham, where it had resided peacefully since 1664. The question of how many First Folios there are in the world is an interesting and surprisingly challenging one, and is discussed at some length in the pages that follow. Suffice it to say for the moment that the rediscovery of one missing volume is cause for rejoicing. I am faithfully assured that it will not be stolen again.

Chapter One

In Search of William Shakespeare

BEFORE HE CAME INTO a lot of money in 1839, Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, led a largely uneventful life.

He sired an illegitimate child in Italy, spoke occasionally in the Houses of Parliament against the repeal of the Corn Laws, and developed an early interest in plumbing (his house at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, had nine of the first flush toilets in England), but otherwise was distinguished by nothing more than his glorious prospects and many names. But after inheriting his titles and one of England’s great estates, he astonished his associates, and no doubt himself, by managing to lose every penny of his inheritance in just nine years through a series of spectacularly unsound investments.

Bankrupt and humiliated, in the summer of 1848 he fled to France, leaving Stowe and its contents to his creditors. The auction that followed became one of the great social events of the age. Such was the richness of Stowe’s furnishings that it took a team of auctioneers from the London firm of Christie and Manson forty days to get through it all.

Among the lesser-noted disposals was a dark oval portrait, twenty-two inches high by eighteen wide, purchased by the Earl of Ellesmere for 355 guineas and known ever since as the Chandos portrait. The painting had been much retouched and was so blackened with time that a great deal of detail was (and still is) lost. It shows a balding but not unhandsome man of about forty who sports a trim beard. In his left ear he wears a gold earring. His expression is confident, serenely rakish. This is not a man, you sense, to whom you would lightly entrust a wife or grown daughter.

Although nothing is known about the origin of the painting or where it was for much of the time before it came into the Chandos family in 1747, it has been said for a long time to be of William Shakespeare. Certainly it looks like William Shakespeare—but then really it ought to, since it is one of the three likenesses of Shakespeare from which all other such likenesses are taken.

In 1856, shortly before his death, Lord Ellesmere gave the painting to the new National Portrait Gallery in London as its founding work. As the gallery’s first acquisition, it has a certain sentimental prestige, but almost at once its authenticity was doubted. Many critics at the time thought the subject was too dark-skinned and foreign looking—too Italian or Jewish—to be an English poet, much less a very great one. Some, to quote the late Samuel Schoenbaum, were disturbed by his wanton air and lubricious lips. (One suggested, perhaps a touch hopefully, that he was portrayed in stage makeup, probably in the role of Shylock.)

Well, the painting is from the right period—we can certainly say that much, Dr. Tarnya Cooper, curator of sixteenth-century portraits at the gallery, told me one day when I set off to find out what we could know and reasonably assume about the most venerated figure of the English language. The collar is of a type that was popular between about 1590 and 1610, just when Shakespeare was having his greatest success and thus most likely to sit for a portrait. We can also tell that the subject was a bit bohemian, which would seem consistent with a theatrical career, and that he was at least fairly well to do, as Shakespeare would have been in this period.

I asked how she could tell these things.

Well, the earring tells us he was bohemian, she explained. An earring on a man meant the same then as it does now—that the wearer was a little more fashionably racy than the average person. Drake and Raleigh were both painted with earrings. It was their way of announcing that they were of an adventurous disposition. Men who could afford to wore a lot of jewelry back then, mostly sewn into their clothes. So the subject here is either fairly discreet, or not hugely wealthy. I would guess probably the latter. On the other hand, we can tell that he was prosperous—or wished us to think he was prosperous—because he is dressed all in black.

She smiled at my look of puzzlement. It takes a lot of dye to make a fabric really black. Much cheaper to produce clothes that were fawn or beige or some other lighter color. So black clothes in the sixteenth century were nearly always a sign of prosperity.

She considered the painting appraisingly. "It’s not a bad painting, but not a terribly good one either, she went on. It was painted by someone who knew how to prime a canvas, so he’d had some training, but it is quite workaday and not well lighted. The main thing is that if it is Shakespeare, it is the only portrait known that might have been done from life, so this would be what William Shakespeare really looked like—if it is William Shakespeare."

And what are the chances that it is?

Without documentation of its provenance we’ll never know, and it’s unlikely now, after such a passage of time, that such documentation will ever turn up.

And if not Shakespeare, who is it?

She smiled. We’ve no idea.

If the Chandos portrait is not genuine, then we are left with two other possible likenesses to help us decide what William Shakespeare looked like. The first is the copperplate engraving that appeared as the frontispiece of the collected works of Shakespeare in 1623—the famous First Folio.

The Droeshout engraving, as it is known (after its artist, Martin Droeshout), is an arrestingly—we might almost say magnificently—mediocre piece of work. Nearly everything about it is flawed. 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. Worst of all, the subject looks diffident, apologetic, almost frightened—nothing like the gallant and confident figure that speaks to us from the plays.

Droeshout (or Drossaert or Drussoit, as he was sometimes known in his own time) is nearly always described as being from a family of Flemish artists, though in fact the Droeshouts had been in England for sixty years and three generations by the time Martin came along. Peter W. M. Blayney, the leading authority on the First Folio, has suggested that Droeshout, who was in his early twenties and not very experienced when he executed the work, may have won the commission not because he was an accomplished artist but because he owned the right piece of equipment: a rolling press of the type needed for copperplate engravings. Few artists had such a device in the 1620s.

Despite its many shortcomings, the engraving comes with a poetic endorsement from Ben Jonson, who says of it in his memorial to Shakespeare in the First Folio:

O, could he but have drawne his wit

As well in brasse, as he hath hit

His face, the Print would then surpasse

All that was ever writ in brasse.

It has been suggested, with some plausibility, that Jonson may not actually have seen the Droeshout engraving before penning his generous lines. What is certain is that the Droeshout portrait was not done from life: Shakespeare had been dead for seven years by the time of the First Folio.

That leaves us with just one other possible likeness: the painted, life-size statue that forms the centerpiece of a wall monument to Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried. Like the Droeshout, it is an

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Ce que les gens pensent de Shakespeare

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Avis des lecteurs

  • (5/5)
    Bill Bryson's wit is unmatched in so many ways. I absolutely loved this book. I read it when I first started teaching and had to teach Shakespeare for the very first time. I wanted to know more about him and I had no clue what I was getting into when I picked this book up. I love Bryson's vast knowledge of different topics and the humor he brings to everything. Highly recommend.
  • (3/5)
    It was okay but don't read it if you are expecting the normal Bryson laughs. They are not here. A little dry.
  • (5/5)
    Beautifully written, concise, and dense with facts about Shakespeare, the volume delights with its debunking of myriad stories about the man and his history. This definitely not for everyone as it assumes at least some background knowledge. Loved seeing this author, who so often writes humorously, restricted by the format of these volumes to sticking to each point being made. This is a book I expect to refer to again periodically as I encounter Shakespeare's plays again and again. Fun, in a very erudite way.
  • (4/5)
    This book is refreshingly direct. Bryson makes it clear right away that we know virtually nothing about Shakespeare, the man. He pads out 150 or so pages with the sort of thing that he does so well - curious contemporary facts and statistics, and interesting anecdotes. The little hard evidence about the Bard of Avon is described fully, birth record, will and the like, and the book ends with a dozen pages about 'Claimants'. These are not really claimants of the authorship but rather candidates put forward posthumously by crazy, obsessed or simply misguided folk as alternatives for the title of Britain's Greatest Playwright. I particularly enjoyed this last chapter. Bryson gives them all pretty short shrift using the, for me, irrefutable argument that while there is very little known about Shakespeare there is absolutely no documentary evidence to connect these candidates with the works of William Shakespeare.
  • (5/5)
    I love this book. Once in a while I reread it.
  • (5/5)
    My version was a short audiobook that I found to be very enjoyable and informative. It's a good concise biography, which is what it sets out to be, so it won't overwhelm the reader with an academic lecture. As well, Bryson adds segments describing life in Elizabethan England in a common sense way, without rising to melodrama about how disagreeable Shakespeare's England was.We've all heard the alternate author theories, but Bryson dismisses these firmly and is able to back up his argument well. This was done in part by describing some of the "eccentrics" who made the claim, but he also provided credible reasoning that Shakespeare was indeed the author. The audiobook ended with a good interview with Bryson by his editor. I enjoyed this so much that I ordered a print copy because there are several lines, words, names etc. that I want to remember for reference. The worst of audiobooks is that you can't stick post-it notes in them, but the best of this one was that it was an excellent narration by Bill Bryson.
  • (5/5)
    Concise but complete, a well prepared essay exploring who he was and why we should not be surprised to have learnt so little previously. Truly a wonderful read.
  • (4/5)
    Bill Bryson writes about such diverse topics. The last book of his that I read was about the USA in 1927 and before that he wrote about the house he lives in in England. For this one he reaches far back in time to the 15 and 1600s when William Shakespeare was writing, directing and acting in plays in London. And yes, Bryson is certain that Shakespeare was the author of the plays attributed to him. He has collated all the information that verifies Shakespeare's existence which isn't very much (the reason the book is comparatively small) and examined copies of the folios and quartos that still exist. Nothing points to any other hand than Shakespeare's being responsible. Nice to have that set to rest.
  • (5/5)
    A very nice little book by Bryson...learned some interesting things about the Bard.
  • (4/5)
    Very interesting and entertaining. I listened to the audio book, read by the author. If you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare, I'd highly recommend this. Bryson's usual dry wit is on display here.
  • (3/5)
    Exclellent, light, interesting.
  • (5/5)
    hochinteressant und wie immer bei Bryson ausgesprochen unterhaltsam geschrieben
  • (5/5)
    Informative, entertaining, smart, addictive. The perfect example of Bryson excelling at taking a topic you think there's nothing left to write about and turning it into a fun ride.
  • (2/5)
    Bill Bryson pokes fun at his own book, noting "this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as because this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record. Which is one reason, of course, it's so slender." (pg 21)
    And that is the crux of it. There is not much to the book, and Bryson clearly had to stretch what he did have to make his page count. Like an English student struggling to hit his word count, whenever Bryson can fill lines by naming titles, he names them all. He stretches points and repeatedly notes what we DON'T know as much as what we do know, and takes tangents about the era whenever he can legitimately create a link to Shakespeare. If you already know something about the Bard, you probably know all this book has to tell you. The only entertaining chapter, I thought, was the last one (again, mostly filler) that discusses all the anti-Shakespeare "scholarship" that seems to have less evidence than there is for who Shakespeare was. Enjoy his plays, but don't bother with the playwright himself.
  • (4/5)
    It's entertaining Bill Bryson here, but the paucity of knowledge about the man and Bryson's obvious frustration with that, are made amply clear. The best part is when he points out all the things we've assumed to be true which are just presumptions. Also, enjoyed his debunking of the who-wrote-Shakespeare gambit.
  • (5/5)
    Bryson's passion for Shakespeare and his unique story telling ability make this narrative a really special work. It gave me so much more appreciation for the plays and got me rereading those that I knew and seeking out ones that I had never experienced. Even if you are not terribly interesting in Shakespeare today, you will be by the time you're finished this short book.
  • (4/5)
    I enjoyed this book even though it was quite different than the Bill Bryson books I have read before (think...Walk in the Woods.) I found the history fascinating and the discussion of the laws of the time were most humorous to me. I would recommend this book to Shakespeare fans, history buffs but not necessarily to Bill Bryson fans. At least not without a heads up that is isn't the easy funny read you may have prepared yourself for.
  • (4/5)
    Bryson gleefully reveals just how little we know about Shakespere in is own, inimitable way. Very readable.
  • (4/5)
    Bryson is a favorite of mine and he does not disappoint. "More than two hundred years ago...historian George Steevens observed that all we know of William Shakespeare is contained within a few scanty facts: That he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, produced a family there, went to London, became an actor and writer, returned to Stratford, made a will and died." Bryson sorts through the "scanty facts" (actually a few more than Steevens lists) and fleshes out this slim volume with wonderful divergences on the provenance of the portraits supposed to represent Shakespeare, the architecture of Elizabethan era theaters, anything known about anyone who knew Shakespeare, and ends firmly on the side of Shakespeare as Shakespeare rather than Bacon or any others put forward to claim the mantle of Bard.Bryson is a wonderful essayist and a joy to read. I highly recommend this book.
  • (4/5)
    There's not necessarily a whole lot of biography in this short biography of William Shakespeare, simply because it tends to stick as close as possible to the known facts about the man, and there are precious few of those. But the mystery that surrounds Shakespeare's life is itself interesting, and so are the attempts of scholars to tease tidbits of knowledge and vast realms of speculation out of small scraps of historical information. Bryson also does a good job of giving the reader a vivid sense of what Shakespeare's time was really like, in all its vibrancy and squalor. And, as always, his writing is lively and readable. It's not laugh-out-loud funny as many of his books are; with the possible exception of the amusing final chapter in which he wittily slams conspiracy theories about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, that's not the effect it's going for. But it is definitely entertaining, as well as educational.
  • (4/5)
    Okay, really it should be 3 stars, but it's engaging enough to win the 4th on pure charm.

    What I loved most was how frequently Bryson reminds the reader that there is no evidence for certain conjectures -- but when there IS evidence, he presents it clearly. He gives balanced pros and cons to theories that could go either way, and he addresses the history of faulty and fraudulent Shakespearean scholarship. As for the authorship debate, he refutes the Baconian and Oxfordian arguments with a hilarious, "We have no proof Shakespeare owned any pants or shoes, either."

    Also, he states outright that Shakespeare can be read as a gay poet and dramatist. No dithering. He also discusses the sonnets and the arguments concerning their assumed recipients at length, and reminds readers that James I used to make out with handsome young men in the midst of performing court business.

    There were also interesting interviews with archivists that put the state and difficultly of the scholarship itself into context. My inner librarian was very happy about that.

    The parts of the book concerning the history of the competing theatres didn't work for me at all, however. It was brief, confusing, and seemed possibly to conflate entirely different buildings, although I actually didn't stop to track down the discrepancies. The Ackroyd book was much clearer on what happened with which property under whose ownership (or tenancy) when, and Ackroyd's various histories of London and Britain lead me to trust his research in this and other questions of setting and daily life (where evidence exists involving other people for the same place and time, and so inserting Shakespeare into it is rational).

    Awesome palate cleanser.
  • (5/5)
    I've always been an admirer of The Bard's works. When I was in school, probably about 14, Macbeth was my first Shagsbard experience. The assignment was to write a missing scene from the play, which I did on blue typing paper for some inexplicable reason. I don't know how that assignment influenced my own writing urges, I only know that it did as well as providing me a springboard to continuing affection for Shakspere's writing.

    What I've never been is interested is the dude. The only things I knew for sure about him were bits and bobs like his being born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, his wife Anne Hathaway to whom he bequeathed his second best bed, the name of his son, Hamnet, bearing resemblance to that of Hamlet, that his mother's name was Elizabeth Arden, and the fact that there are a lot people trying to prove that he was other than the man we think he was, even though we haven't got a clue about who he was.

    What made me finally pick up a biography was my gluttonous consumption of BBC2's recent showing of Julius Caesar and The Hollow Crown, which were just phenomenal. I picked up Peter Ackroyd's biography first and then realised that Bryson's was way less hefty and would provide a quicker route to reaching my Goodreads target. Best tactical decision everrrrr. I didn't really expect it to be that good either because I tried reading a book by Bryson once and didn't really enjoy the tone (grumpy cow).

    This book though, awesome. I was a third through the paperback when I realised that 1) I was enjoying it immensely and 2) the library had an edition which illustrated many of the portraits, maps and etc. that Bryson was referencing. So, firstly I would say that if you're about to read this and perusing reviews, go for the illustrated edition. It's an utter delight with some beautiful images, plus a CD of sonnets read by John Gielgud, wut-wuuuuut?!

    And secondly, if you're thinking about diving into the realm of Fhakefpeare's identity, this is a great place to start because Bryson talks a lot about the fact that we really haven't much of a clue about who the hell this guy was. He mentions the various names to which his works have been attributed, while having a bit of fun at the expense of these anti-Stratfordians (especially the unfortunately named Looney, Sillimen and Batty - I laughed so hard I almost needed the toilet).

    What I love about this book is that Bryson comes across as an admirer, but not too dazzled to believe any old guff. He also sees no reason why Will.I.Am is so unacceptable as a country-boy with a decent grammar school education and quite rightly seems amused by the need to elevate Will to someone of greater learning or breeding, forgetting that while the author might give voice to princes and kings, he also taps into the kind of knowledge about which men of higher breeding might not have had any awareness.

    There's also a decent amount of investigation into the era of our playwright, the kind of world he was inhabiting and the kind of people with whom he was sharing it. It was interesting to stop and think how different a history we could be reading, how his world could have changed at the drop of a firecracker, how our author might not have made it past his first birthday or how if Marlowe had not died, maybe today Shoots Spear would be like what Harry Potter is to some Lord of the Rings fans.

    This biography definitely left me wanting to know more, but at the same time appreciating the fact that our lack of knowledge about the man somehow make his works all that more special. Shakes Pare could have been anyone. Some rich posh dude with epic tricks up his sleeve to retain his anonymity (as well as the power to keep shut the mouths of people around him... even after he died 0.o) or just some guy with a decent enough background to write well, but an epic imagination with which he gave his words flight and heart, so much so that they still move us without our having to know, who was this man William Shakespeare?
  • (4/5)
    This was an interesting look at a figure I've heard of so much and whose plays I've performed but never really tried to find that much about. I was surprised initially to find how little real information there is about him but the book explains that the little we know is still far more then is known about a lot of other people of his time. It was an interesting and informative read and I'd recommend it to anyone who has an interest in his plays. Now I must go read the rest of his work.
  • (4/5)
    I listened to this as an audio book on a long drive. Very entertaining! Read by Bryson himself. This is funny and informative.
  • (3/5)
    Refreshingly honest, Bryson admits that he has nothing new to say about Shakespeare from the very outset, and in fact spends most of the book demolishing some of the generally accepted facts about Shakespeare, pointing out the lack of evidence. It's useful for a casual reader and the casual interest in Shakespeare, but obviously you'd want to go elsewhere if you have an academic interest in it. It serves as an excellent rundown of what we do know about the Bard, though.

    He writes clearly and often with humour: a favourite titbit among reviewers is justifiably his pointed comment that Silliman, Looney and Battey are among the surnames rejoiced in by people who theorise that Shakespeare was not really the author of the plays attributed to him. If you have someone in your life who clings to the conspiracy theories about that, and it annoys you, you might consider giving them this book for Bryson's last chapter, in which he makes such theories seem quite silly.

    There is nothing startling and new here, but for the clarity of Bryson's research and his writing, it's worth it as a casual read.
  • (4/5)
    Nice light fun history tour of what is known (and not known) about Shakespeare. To me a case history of first listen to those who were there . Not those generations removed. At the time, Shakespeare was a successful business man who wrote for his market. The Andrew Lloyd Weber of his day! Others were more popular then him at the time.Somewhere today lurks an art form and a creator that we barely notice but will one day be seen as defining the age. And all that we consider truth will be dust.
  • (2/5)
    This was a difficult book for me to finish, even though it is not very long. The author makes the point very early (and emphasizes it repeatedly) that very little is known for sure about Shakespeare. From there, the presentation of the rest of the book is extremely dry. I was motivated to learn about Shakespeare so I stuck with it, but most of my fellow book club members did not. Only two of the group finished the book, while five started and found it too dry to continue. If you are looking for an interesting read, you'd be better off passing on this one.
  • (4/5)
    Bill Bryson looks at what's known about the bard and takes a good stab at extricating the facts from the myths and legends that abound about him (William, not Bill). There's a lot of information in the book but he presents it in his usual engaging manner, finding a good balance between humour and serious investigation. One of his better books.
  • (5/5)
    If I would write a book, I would hope to write like Bill Bryson. He's engaging no matter what he's writing about. I had the misfortune of having a complacent history teacher for all four years of high school, and so in early middle age, I have decided to read bits and pieces of history writing in an effort to learn something, anything.Bryson said as much as he could about what little is known about Shakespeare. Bryson made the connections where he could, and talked about the theories of prominent scholars as well as the theories of anti-Stratfordians--those who believe Shakespeare did not write the plays, although he gives them little credit. He's quick to point out discrepancies where they arise.Overall, I'm not sure if I know much more about Shakespeare than I did to begin with, but I feel as though I've seen him as a human being existing in Elizabethan England. That much helps to put Shakespeare's story in perspective.
  • (5/5)
    The 400th anniversary of the Bard's death has prompted me to read a number of Shakespeare-themed books and this fairly short biography by Bill Bryson is the latest. It covers what we actually know about the life of Shakespeare, which is comparatively very little (though this is still more than we know about the lives of most of his contemporary authors), and about the world in which he thrived at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. One point that emerges clearly is how lucky we are to have nearly all his plays surviving, thanks to his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell who compiled the First Folio of his plays a few years after his death, and without whose endeavours we would probably lack half of his plays entirely. In the final two chapters, the author considers Shakespeare's legacy and the extraordinary claims of those who contend that Shakespeare did not really write his own plays, a claim that no contemporary ever made and that was not made by anyone until nearly two centuries after his death. This book is not a detailed literary or academic biography, but it covers the background to Shakespeare's life and times in a way that is likely to appeal to a wide range of readers. Very good.