Shakespeare: The World As Stage, written and read by Bill Bryson
Having enjoyed Bryson’s humorous account of a trip along the Appalachian Trail  and being a fairly intense bardophile of the Stratfordian type , like the author, this was an obvious book that I had to listen to once I found it in my local library’s nonfiction audiobook selection. Like many people, I knew Bryson to be a great humorist, but in this book he takes a very serious look at Shakespeare from the point of view of a journalist writing a serious factual account and not playing for laughs. The fact that the author read his audiobook was also admirable from a fellow writer who would definitely like to do the same thing myself. There are thousands of books about William Shakespeare, and the author himself freely confesses that there is no great need for more, but the book is part of a series, which accounts for its existence. Those who are expecting the author’s characteristic sense of humor will likely be disappointed, but those who are looking for a good factual work that offers thoughtful and reasoned analysis, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy here about William Shakespeare.
The book as a whole is remarkably conventional. This is not a criticism. Just like William Shakespeare was a modestly educated provincial young man who made it in the extremely competitive world of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, so to the author comes as a journalist and not as a literary historian or Shakespeare scholar. What Bryson does in this audiobook is to place Shakespeare scholarship within the context of facts, from within Shakespeare’s works as well as within the context of the history of his time and the generally scarce available evidence of the lives of commoners like him in his time period. This interplay between the wild flights of fancy of many scholars seeking to pave new ground or distinguish themselves from fellow scholars and the rather slender facts known about a writer whose high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence has earned him a lasting reputation as a great writer makes a book full of fascinating tension. This tension is consistent as the author examines the family background of Shakespeare, his childhood, the lost years between his shotgun marriage to an older and pregnant wife and the first printed libel against him in 1592 by a dying rival playwright, the order of Shakespeare’s plays, the question of his poetry, the implications of Shakespeare’s sonnets on his presumed sexuality, his thoughts about his wife and the general disconnect about Shakespeare’s extreme lack of personality in any of the facts known about him with the extremely dynamic and vivid emotional life of his writings, to the total lack of evidence for the many people who claim that someone other than William Shakespeare wrote his plays for reasons that amount to snobbery.
Ultimately, whether one appreciates a book like this depends in large part on one’s expectations as well as one’s own background. As a person of a modest and provincial background but considerable talent and hard work, Shakespeare has always been a model of how a writer can seek to use the power of the written word to convey empathy and understanding in the face of immense pressures of time. Bryson clearly takes Shakespeare and the written world very seriously, and this seriousness shows throughout the work and in the interview that comes after the end of the book. Not all readers will expect this seriousness or appreciate it, but given the fact that a great deal of mythmaking and outright fanciful imagination is connected with Shakespeare given the paucity of facts about him and the rather shadowy nature of Shakespeare’s personal background, life history, and emotional life, a certain seriousness and refusal to engage in any unnecessary speculation is a noble act of heroic restraint. Perhaps it seems odd to celebrate a work for its restraint, but in this case it ends up being a work whose modesty is itself a considerable virtue.
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