Monday, November 8, 2010

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare: The World as Stage
written and read by Bill Bryson
HarperAudio, 2008
5 discs (unabridged)

So, you may have noticed a theme with these audiobooks. I appear to be hooked on Bill Bryson. It's possible the next audiobook I'm going to look into will be written and read by him, too. No promises, but sometimes when I find a good thing I like to stick to it.

This was one of those serendipitous finds; someone brought it back to the library and I just happened to be on the desk. I had no idea Bryson had written a biography of Shakespeare. But how could it go wrong, I thought, and signed it out myself.

What I got was a very concise, rather informative, and mostly quite entertaining biography of Shakespeare. In short, just what I was hoping for. It kept me interested for a good week of commuting, which is about as much as any audiobook can hope to do. And this time, unlike the first Bryson audiobook I listened to, I knew what to expect with his delivery, so it took me no time at all to get into the flow of things.

One may wonder what the heck Bryson has to add to the piles and piles of Shakespeare biographies out there, and the answer is: not substantially much, which is kind of the point. This is a bare-bones biography, with Bryson mostly looking for the established facts from primary evidence, and fastidiously avoiding speculation, myth, legend, and heresy, of which we are informed there is a surplus. Actually, we're informed of this multiple times; the one irritation I had with this book is that there is a substantial amount of repetition of certain themes and phrases. How many surviving signatures are there? Six you say? I'm sorry, I thought there were six. Oh yes, only six signatures in Shakespeare's own hand survive. Three signatures might not even be in Shakespeare's own hand, which would be rather a blow, as that would be half of the six surviving signatures.

You perhaps get the idea. It's possible I'm exaggerating for effect.

That said, I suspect the repetition wouldn't be so obvious in a printed version, and may seem thematic or like tying up loose ends instead. I have a pretty decent auditory memory, so it's possible that I'm a little sensitive. I am much less likely to notice repetition in print.

We are taken chronologically through the little we know about Shakespeare's life, with copious asides about life, language, literature and culture in Elizabethan England at various important moments. Each of these asides attaches itself to some critical point about Shakespeare, his family, his contemporaries, the atmosphere he would have been working in, and so forth; there really isn't anything superfluous in here. The pace of the book isn't breakneck, but it's definitely snappy, which helps in keeping my attention, though it will be interesting to see how much of what I learned (which was quite a lot) gets retained. After a while, I got pretty good at keeping track of dates in my head. And remembering what went before -- because while there is excessive repetition of some facts, others are of the blink-and-it's-gone type.

Bryson also spends some time telling us about Shakespearean scholars, mostly in relation to either their expert opinions on some facet of Shakespearean knowledge, or to skewer their more fanciful suppositions and speculations. Occasionally he delves a little deeper into their eccentricities, of which Shakespearean scholars seem to have many; he clearly finds the people who have devoted their lives to Shakespearean scholarship to be fascinating, and fairly so.

I think my absolute favourite chapter was the final one, in which Bryson systematically and thoroughly debunks any suggestion that Shakespeare may not have in fact written his plays himself. It's a perfect structure; he has just spent the entire book laying out the various facts of Shakespeare's life, so it seems ludicrous to the reader in the first place that anyone would doubt the authorship of the plays, poems and sonnets. But Bryson gives each major theory careful (and really funny) consideration, and this section provided some of my favourite passages of the entire book. Because it's so simple, and because it's so concise, I must say Bryson has me completely convinced that Shakespeare was the only one who could have authored the work his name is on, and it would take something pretty earth-shattering to move me from that position.

All in all, a very worthwhile and interesting book, and I'm very glad I decided to pick it up. The next Bryson audiobook that passes by me will almost certainly be snapped up for my listening pleasure.


Ana S. said...

I can't resist commenting with this:

Six is the number of surviving signatures in Shakespeare's own hand, and the number of surviving signatures in Shakespeare's own hand is six. Seven it is not, and neither is it five, unless you add one and proceed to make it six. Okay sorry I'll stop now :P In all seriously, I also enjoyed this a lot. It made me see Bryson in a new light, after a pretty meh experience with Notes from a Small Island.

Stephanie said...

This sounds terrific. I am a fan of Bill Bryson since reading The Mother Tongue. Terrific review!

Unknown said...

Ha! I love it.

I haven't tried Notes from a Small Island yet. I'm not sure which one I'll go for next; I get the impression from many reviews I've seen that his body of work is a little spotty as to quality.

Unknown said...

Stephanie, your comment came in after I'd started replying to Nymeth! Yes, I think if you enjoy Bryson, this is a good bet. I haven't read/listened to The Mother Tongue yet, but I think I have a digital audio version of it from my library. Perhaps it will be my next audiobook.

Jeanne said...

I definitely find Bryson spotty, and I've felt a bit snotty about this book--what could it say that I don't already know--but I am SO glad to hear he comes down on the side of Shakespeare writing the plays. (Although if there were no alternate theories, reading Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair wouldn't be half so much fun!)

Unknown said...

Jeanne, I think this is probably not a book for anyone with any post-secondary familiarity with Shakespeare's life. It's pretty basic, which I think would be good for, say, high schoolers doing a project, or someone like me with a passing interest but not a lot of serious knowledge. That said, some of his commentary is both amusing and interesting -- and the last chapter is hilarious and pitch-perfect.