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Hardcover Shakespeare: The World as Stage Book

ISBN: 0060740221

ISBN13: 9780060740221

Shakespeare: The World as Stage

(Part of the Eminent Lives Series)

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Book Overview

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. Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings


It’s a fun historical weekend read. I took it on a weekend camping trip and it was perfect

Cool analysis of William Shakespeare

This is one volume in the series "Eminent Lives." After having read this book, I am interested in exploring this series further. William Shakespeare, of course, was a great playwright, whether of comedy or tragedy, and a fine poet as well. Bill Bryson, the author of this slender volume, notes how little we actually know of Shakespeare, when he says (Page 7): ". . .all we know about 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." After 400 years, the author observes, there are only about a hundred documents speaking to the Bard of Avon and his family. The book begins by exploring what little is known about Shakespeare's early years (by the way, one cool point in this book is the multiple spellings of his name over time; Shakespeare himself spelled it differently at different points in time). The introductory comments also note something absolutely amazing: zillions of plays were written and performed in Shakespeare's time. Of the total number, only about 230 texts still exist--of which 15% are by Shakespeare, a stunning percentage. We know more about his work than any other playwright of the era. The book is organized by time period. Chapter 2 examines the years from 1564-1585, Shakespeare's youth. The chapter begins with an effort to understand his father's life (John Shakespeare) as well as that of his mother (Mary Arden). We have little information on the Bard--his birth certificate, his marriage certificate (with Anne Hathaway), birth certificates for his children--during this period. From 1585 to 1592, Chapter 3 suggests, little is known about Shakespeare. Chapter 4 considers his early years in London. He began as an actor and turned, over time, into an author of plays. In 1592, he had even earned in a publication the scorn of a critic. By 1594, his theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, had become one of the major forces in theater, including leading actors of the day. Subsequent chapters consider his plays, his business success (he did well as a joint owner of the troupe and the Globe Theater), his sonnets, what little we know of his family life (his son, Hamnet, died in his early youth). He was successful under Queen Elizabeth and, after her death, King James I, who viewed many of his performances. A number of contentious issues are addressed, including Shakespeare's sexuality, his relationship with his wife and family. There is even a brief description of the debates over whether Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him. Finally, the end game of his life. . . . If one wishes a brief introduction to the life of Shakespeare (with a dash of wit thrown in by the author), this is a good place to start. Nicely written and well done!

The whole idea is that we don't know much about Shakespeare... but Bryson turns that into quite a bi

A tough assignment; write a book on a topic about which we know almost nothing, the life of William Shakespeare. Better yet, make the book about the fact that we know very little about the life of William Shakespeare. Let that book compete with thousands of others about Shakespeare. Doesn't sound like a recipe for a successful book, but Bryson has truly pulled it off. Here's how. First off, Bryson doesn't shy away from the fact that we know very little about Shakespeare, instead, he uses it to his advantage. After laying out the facts we do have about Shakespeare, Bryson turns to a description of the world in which Shakespeare lived to explain why we know so little about the man. He really brings 17th century England to life and paints a picture in which you can imagine Shakespeare operating. It's really well done and ends up being fascinating. Second, Bryson addresses the speculation that has risen up around Shakespeare's life to fill the void of knowledge that we face. Using the information we do have about Shakespeare and the times in which he lived, he categorizes the various Shakespeare theories into more fanciful and less fanciful piles and explains why they belong there. It makes for really interesting reading. My familiarity with and interest in Shakespeare are average to below average, and yet I found this book to be fascinating, readable and informative. It's made me more interested in Shakespeare. Highly recommended even for those who aren't deeply interested in Shakespeare.

In search of someone who "is at once the best known and least known of figures"

Those who have read Bill Bryson's previously published A Short History of Nearly Everything already know that he has an apparently insatiable intellectual curiosity and derives great pleasure from sharing what he has learned. In A Short History, he explains why the human race may be the universe's "supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously." It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Bryson later set out in search of William Shakespeare, someone who "is at once the best known and least known of figures." To me, Bryson's quests for understanding "of nearly anything"become, for both him and his readers, adventures of discovery. That is certainly true of this, his most recent book, and yet.... As Bryson notes, Shakespeare (who never spelled his name the same way twice in the signatures that survive) remains "at once the best known and least known of figures" and that is one of the few conclusions that Bryson draws. What did Shakespeare look like? Almost immediately, Bryson acknowledges that those who wish to know "are in the curious position with William Shakespeare of having three likenesses from which all others are derived: two that aren't very good [Bryson explains why] by artists working years after his death and one that is rather more compelling as a portrait but that may well be of someone else altogether. The paradoxical consequence is that we all recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don't really know what he looked like." This is an example of Bryson at the peak of his game, addressing a basic issue, sharing what is (and isn't) known about it, and then moving on to another...and then another. As historian George Steevens once observed, all that is known about Shakespeare "is contained within a few scanty facts: that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon, produced a family there, went to London, became an actor and writer, returned to Stratford, made a will, and died. That wasn't quite true then, and it is even less so now, but it is not all that far from the truth either." At an almost leisurely pace, Bryson works his way through a wealth of historical material, carefully constructing a frame-of-reference for those "few scanty facts." For example: "After four hundred years of dedicated hunting, researchers have found about a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family - baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds, writs of attachment, court records (many court records - it was a litigious age), and so on. That's a good number as these things go, but deeds and bonds and other records are inevitably bloodless. They tell us a great deal about the business of a person's life, but almost nothing about the emotions of it." "Nearly everyone agrees that William Shakespeare's career as a playwright began in about 1590, but there is much less agreement on which plays began it. Depending on whose authority you favor, Shakespeare's debut written offeri

Much Ado about (virtually) Nothing

A few years ago, as a companion piece to a series of study-guides to the plays of Shakespeare, I wrote a guide called "Shakespeare and His Times". In it I explained that virtually nothing is really known about the Bard's life and proceeded to delineate that which was, in little more than a paragraph. Bill Bryson makes the same point at the outset of "Shakespeare: The World as Stage", and then, because he is the writer he is, takes close to 200 pages to cover it. One would think that 200 pages covering "nothing" would grow tedious. One would be wrong!!! (three exclamatio points, if you please.) So charmigly does Bryson write; so entertainingly does he explicate WHY nothing is known, and how to best understand that nothing, that the book is an unending source of knowledge and delight. ANY writer can write about SOMETHING. It takes the massive talents of the Thunderbolt Kid to write this well about nothing. He makes "Seinfeld" look loquacious.
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