Review: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

It's time for the truth: I am not a fan of Shakespeare. I am still traumatised by being made to read his plays in High School when I could have reading many more cooler and more interesting books (to my teenage mind). The hangover from this is that the thought of reading Shakespeare still sends shudders down my spine.

Bill Bryson, on the other hand, I love. His books usually have me laughing out loud on public transport and at other inappropriate places and times.

So when I saw a book entitled Shakespeare by Bill Bryson I thought that it was the perfect opportunity to learn something about one of the greatest known playwrights, while being amused by a funny writer, and without having to read a Shakespeare play.

Fortunately, I was right, and it was a great read.

What's clever about this book is that Bryson isn't trying to teach us everything there is to know about Shakespeare. Instead he seems determined to convey how little we know about and how little we can know about him. Everything from how he looked to how is really spelled his name is a mystery. I learnt that there are only a few surviving samples of Shakespeare's signature, and not one of them is spelled the same as any of the others and none of them are spelt in the manner that we are accustomed to seeing his name written now.

Bryson points out that as we know so little about the man, academics and scholars have instead largely concentrated on what it is possible to know about Shakespeare's plays:
"Faced with a wealth of text but a poverty of context, scholars have focused obsessively on what they can know. They have counted every word he wrote, logged every dib and jot. They can tell us (and have done so) that Shakespeare's works contain 138,198 commas, 26,794 colons, and 15,785 question marks; that ears are spoken of 401 times in his plays; that dunghill is used 10 times and dullard twice; that his characters refer to love 2,259 times but to hate just 183 times; that he used damned 105 times and bloody 226 times, but bloody-minded only twice; that he wrote hath 2,069 times but has just 409 times; that all together he left us 884,647 words, made up of 31,959 speeches, spread over 118,406 lines".
Essentially what Bryson does in Shakespeare is to concentrate on sharing interesting facts about we can know about Shakespeare's writing and what we do know about the times in which he lived. This includes matters such as transport, town planning and dress.

Bryson uses these observations and historical facts in two ways. The first is to attempt to draw possible conclusions about what Shakespeare himself was like and what his life may have been like. He also, however, uses facts that can be gleaned from Shakespeare's work to draw possible conclusions about what life in England must have been like. So, we find interesting facts such as this:
"Pronunciations, too, were often very different from today's. We know from Shakespeare that knees, grease, grass and grace all rhymed (at least more or less), and that he could pun reason with raison and Rome with room. The first hundred or so lines of Venus and Adonis offer such striking rhyme pairs as satiety and variety, fast and haste, bone and gone, entreats and frets, swears and tears, hear and get. Elsewhere plague is rhymed with wage, grapes with mishaps, Calais with chalice (the French town was often spelled 'Callis' or 'Callice')."
Bryson does all of this with his characteristic sense of humour; poking fun at the extent of scholarly attention the minutiae of Shakespeare's writing has received, as well as at some of the conclusions these scholars have reached based on what little primary evidence there is about the man himself.

This includes of course the conjecture around whether Shakespeare was really the author of his own plays. Bryson dedicates an entire chapter to these theories at the end of the book. This chapter, in fact, is really dedicated to making fun of the various theories about who might really have authored the plays and was one of the funniest chapters in the book.

This isn't Bryson's most humorous book but if you, like me, enjoy a good chuckle and aren't so fussed about Shakespeare, this is a great introduction to the life and times (or what we can know of them) of a great playwright.

6 / 8
Really enjoyable and well written. I would recommend it

I would love to know if you enjoyed this book in the same way that I did? I admit, that I can perhaps see that fans of Shakespeare might find Bryson's light hearted attitude a little irritating at times.