Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Stage

Just finished Bill Bryson’s “Shakespeare: The World as Stage,” an excellent short biography of the playwright. It’s short, not only because it’s part of HarperCollin’s subsidiary Atlas Books’s “Eminent Lives” series, but because not much is known about Shakespeare.

Anyone who has read a number of Shakespearian-related books will recognize a lot of the material here, so it was up to Bryson to infuse it with style and humor, and he does so admirably. He steps into the narrative at least twice, in discussing the known portraits, and near the end, visiting the Fogler Library in Washington to discuss the variations in the First Folios. He also comes up with pertinent anecdotes to illuminate his points. To show how far the English language has evolved since Elizabethian times, he describes the Globe’s staging in 2005 of “Troilus and Cressida” in “Early Modern English” or “Original Pronunciation.” Bryson writes that “the critic John Lahr, writing in the ‘New Yorker,’ estimated that he could understand only about 30 percent of what was said.”

Unlike his other books I’ve read (“Notes from A Small Island” about England, “A Walk in the Woods” about the Appalachian Trail and “Made in America,” a collection of essays), Bryson uses his sense of humor sparsely, almost as an aside. This is appropriate; the book isn’t about him, after all. And while it may appear irritating to constantly refer to how little we know the man behind the plays, it, too is appropriate. This makes it an ideal first biography to read, before wading into the seas of speculation that have nearly drowned the humanity.

Finally, one section should be made required reading in the schools. At the end, Bryson takes on the anti-Shakespeare crowd, who refuse to accept what little evidence there is and put forth no less than 50 candidates, including the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon or a committee of the whole as “William Shakespeare.” Bryson does them too much honor by quoting their arguments, but does them no favor by demolishing them, and he instructs us that, just because The New York Times, PBS and Derek Jacobi questions the existence of Shakespeare, doesn’t mean that they’re right.

Bryson reveals their claims, and shows that “nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment — actually all of it, every bit — involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact. Showing that maintaining the existence of such a conspiracy would have to include the book publishers who affixed Shakespeare’s name to his works, the writers who praised him in their works, and Ben Jonson, who reminisced about Shakespeare in his private notebook a dozen years after the man’s death. Bryson concludes that

“one really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratfordian enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, four hundred years after it was perpetrated.”

In fact, the evidence against such an impersonation is so all-encompassing, the evidence on the anti-Shakespeare side so weak, that it should be considered a measure of a person’s intelligence and reasoning ability. If you believe that Shakespeare didn’t exist, you’re an idiot. It’s comforting know there’s some certainly in this world.

How did I get this book?: Picked up at the library.

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