Friday, January 11, 2008

Review : Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, The World As Stage

Right before Christmas a friend asked if I had anything by Bill Bryson in my collection.  I said, "The Walk In The Woods guy?  No."  I knew that he'd done a Shakespeare book, but not much more than that.  So I wasn't surprised when it showed up as a Christmas present.

I loved this book.  I really really did.  There are four things that put it over the top for me:

1) It's small.  Just under 200 pages makes it the kind of thing you feel like you can read casually and still actually finish in meaningful time.  Somebody like a Harold Bloom could do 200 pages alone on whether Hamlet said "solid" or "sullied" :).

2) Since it is small, it is brief.  Bryson says in a paragraph or two what others say in a volume or three.  The entire authorship question is wrapped up nicely in a chapter, in which the author even acknowledges that there are well over five thousand books on the topic.

3) It is loaded with facts.   If I'd listed this as #1 it could well have been true for any of the 1000 page tomes the masters have written.  But in this small and entertaining book, Bryson only offers enough fact to make his point, and then he moves on.

4) It is entertaining!  The author manages to thoroughly enjoy his topic, while never tripping over into the fawning "I wish this were true" trap to which so many biographers fall victim.  There are some well known biographies of Shakespeare that take the position, "We don't know much about Shakespeare's life for a fact, but let's pretend it went a little something like this...."  Well, Bryson's book slaps on a "...but, probably not."  He is clearly content with how little we know about Shakespeare.

Mind you, the very nature of this book makes it pretty introductory stuff.  Much like the recent "44 facts you probably didn't know" post from someone else's blog, readers with different levels of exposure to Shakespeare will learn different things.  But I find it hard to believe that there's someone out there who already knew it all.  He dips into word frequency and invention, but never in a boring way  ("Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, ... lonely, leapfrog, zany, well-read, and countless others - including countless!")  He dissects the existing portraits and signatures of Shakespeare, but again, manages to keep it fascinating.  I knew that there are only six known signatures, but I did not know that he spells his name differently every time and that he never spelled it Shakespeare.

It's actually the case that Bryson backs up his arguments with evidence so frequently that when he doesn't, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  "The plays were owned by the company, not the playwright," he writes, "So the fact that Shakespeare makes no mention of them in his will is not unusual." [That is my paraphrase, not a direct quote.]  But I didn't see any evidence cited, which made me question this bit and others.

I could go through the whole book selecting the nuggets I found most fascinating, but that would take me all day and it would take the fun out of the book for you.  There are, however, two major sections that I thought worth mentioning.

The first is about the issue of homosexuality in the sonnets.   It took me a few seconds to digest this sentence, given the emphasis on facts and evidence throughout the book:

The extraordinary fact is that Shakespeare, creator of the tenderest and most moving scenes of heterosexual affection in play after play, became with the sonnets English literary history's sublimest gay poet.

Wh....ummm.....err.....huh?  I think this is the only time in the book Bryson comes out and says "The fact is..." and then attaches that Shakespeare was a gay poet?  Eight pages are devoted to the sonnets and for whom they are written.  The language of those pages is odd, as if every argument against Shakespeare's homosexuality is couched in language like "Discomfort lasted well into the twentieth century.." and "...that [Shakespeare's sexuality] may have been pointed in some wayward direction has caused trouble for admirers ever since."  There are moments when it sounds like Bryson is saying "If you don't think Shakespeare was gay, you're fooling yourself."  I was reminded of my recent reading of Kenneth Burke relative to the question, where he actually used the word "squeamish" (as in, "I don't get squeamish about it").  I'm left wondering just how squeamish Bryson is. It took me a little while to convince myself that by "gay poet" he mean that the relationships expressed in the sonnets were homosexual, and not that Shakespeare himself was.  Not that there's anything wrong with that - I take issue more at the "extraordinary fact" bit of that sentence, when it is anything but.

Lastly comes the authorship question.  Bryson masterfully destroys every argument I've ever heard in a way so amusing and patronizing that it merited applause when I was done.  "So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment -- actually all of it, every bit -- involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact."  Strong words from someone who throughout the book has been so keen to differentiate what we know via evidence from what we wish were true. 

"There's no evidence that Shakespeare owned any books!" is countered with "Then he must not have owned any pants, because there's no evidence of that either!"  Good point :).

Starting with an amusing story about just how nuts Delia Bacon was, Bryson can't help but acknowledge the early contributors to anti-Stratford sentiment, namely the noteworthy J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood Silliman and George Battey.  Love it! 

He then dissects the contenders one at a time.  Bacon?  There's no link between Bacon and theatre in any way, shape, or form, other than Bacon's own attacks on the pasttime as "frivolous and lightweight."   Oxford? He had his own company of players and yet wrote for the competition?  He was so sneaky that he wrote in puns ("hate from Hate away") about his pseudonym's wife?  Oh, and he died 10 years before he could have written The Tempest and Macbeth.  Marlowe, who "had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work"?  This case, Bryson notes, at least had "a kind of loopy charm."

He even acknowledges the Mary Sidney argument, of which I'm familiar after getting a chance to rea d Robin P. Williams' book, Sweet Swan of Avon.  Bryson acknowledges all the obvious family connections that Sidney had to Shakespeare, but then concludes, "All that is missing to connect her with Shakespeare is anything to connect her with Shakespeare."  I'm not sure that's quite fair, but maybe that's just sympathy for Ms. Williams' coming through.

If I go on much longer my review will be longer than the book and I'll end up spoiling all the good parts.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy, for everything I said above.  It is not overly imaginative.  It never strays far from the evidence, even when that evidence is potentially dull and boring (like Shakespeare's habit of never paying his taxes).  The writing keeps it entertaining, and that's what drives a reader to finish a book.  It shouldn't be a chore, it should be a treat . This one was.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very good book.He actually makes Shakespeare interesting.
I'm reading, Notes from a small Island by Bill Bryson at the moment.It's bloody funny and inspiring.

stuart said...

I am extremely tired of modern scholars projecting their own homosexual explanations on gullible people who no longer understand that homage to the eternal Goddess (Pallas Athena, Minerva Brittania, the Triple Goddess, Ishtar, Isis, Ashima, Anatha, Astarte, Anna, the Marys, whatever you want) is threaded all through Shakespeare's work. For example, Sonnett 18 has only one interpretation. Take two lines:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


So anybody including Bryson who peddles the homosexual nonsense has thoughtlessly and naively succumbed to low grade scholarship. I suggest that he tries reading all Shakespeare's works, Bacon and others with this in mind. I write about this extensively in the Alchemy Key

Craig said...

Thanks for the recommendation; I think I'll pick it up myself. I was trying to get into The Invention of the Human at long last, but I've found it unengaging. This might be just the tonic.

Shakespeare's sexuality is a long, long way from being settled, though, and for Bryson to so breezily assert such a thing as a matter of fact is really beyond the pale. Asserting Shakespeare was gay in any sense that we would recognize the term is problematic, especially in light of Sonnet 20 ("A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted"). Not wanting to be vulgar, but the entire point of that Sonnet seems to be "what a pity you have a penis!" ("But since she pricked thee out for woman's pleasure,/ Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.") Any attempt to characterize Shakespeare as a practicing homosexual has got a _lot_ of explaining to do about that passage.

Duane said...

I think that everyone should read the section for themselves and draw their own conclusions, Craig. I was pretty flabbergasted, as you can tell from my review, the way he said "the extraordinary fact" as lead in to the whole question in the first place! I don't think he's saying that it's a fact that Shakespeare was gay. Perhaps it was a bad choice of words where he thought he was being shocking, like "Hey didn't you know the sonnets are written to a dude?" But I think that most people who are reading such books did already know that.

Anonymous said...

I am currently reading this book and am finding it to be much more deep than this reviewer says it is. I like it so far and find Bryson to be clear and consise with his facts. I do not find him to be that funny though. Am I missing something here? It's a bit of a chuckle here and there, but mostly I don't laugh. I also enjoyed Walk in the Woods.

SB

Duane said...

Matter of opinion I guess, SB. I can't speak to this one in comparison to other Bryson works, this is the only one I've read. But in comparison to other Shakespeare works? If you think this one is deep, you need to go read Harold Bloom :).

Elijah said...

Bryson, despite his occasional slip-ups (he has always struck me as careful, but not obsessively so), is always good for a well educated laugh.

If you desire to continue reading his books, I would suggest that The Mother Tongue is next on your list. It's a fairly logical step from Shakespeare to the origins of the English language.

catkins said...

To read Shakespeare's Sonnets as an expression of homosexual love is a very narrow view. One must contrast, for example, the first 126 sonnets, with the remainder. The sexual interest in the latter and the lack of the same in the former is unmistakable. An even starker contrast can be found in Richard Barnfield's sonnets, especially his Sonnet 16. Now THAT's gay poetry. One must read Montaigne's essay "On Friendship" to understand the love that is chronicled in the first 126 sonnets.

Anonymous said...

WOW. I'm really taken back by the homophobia expressed here.

Stuart, for one, you lose all credibility when you say that [anything written by Shakespeare] has only ONE interpretation. 'Nuff said.

I also think you all have misread the quote that Duane isolates. Bryson is being ironic by pointing out that one series of poems automatically places the Bard - who wrote the tenderest and most moving scenes of hetero affection in the plays - into the "gay" camp. He isn't interpreting the sonnets as much as commenting on the extremes to which the interpreters have gone.

My only beef with that quote, btw, is that while Shakespeare did indeed write some of the most tender and moving hetero scenes in the plays, he also wrote some pretty incredible homo-erotic passages IN THE PLAYS as well (Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, R & J, to name a few)- another extraordinary fact.

To conclude that he was Either/Or is equally tiresome scholarship.

Unknown said...

While I am a great fan of Mr. Bryson, this is a real nonsense book.

"He is clearly content with how little we know about Shakespeare"

"So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment -- actually all of it, every bit -- involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact."

Mr. Bryson is guilty of the crime of fitting the "facts" to fit his preconceived notions.

Mr. Bryson is a superb author. I have enjoyed many of his books. However, skilled composition does not substitute for solid sleuthing, which is what is required in resolving the Shakespeare authorship.

A disciplined and businesslike analysis of everything about the fellow from Avon, and the Elizabethan society of the age, has led scores of persons, from detectives to world-renowned authors, to the (correct in my view) conclusion that it is impossible for the guy we know as Shakespeare, from Avon, to have been the author of this body of work. The "real" Shakespeare has been plausibly identified, but that is another story.

You know these theses. I will not belabor them. Mr. Bryson has not served himself or his readership with this book. He is, sadly and precisely, guilty of the flaws he accuses others of.

Al said...

Have you actually read Harold Bloom? From what I've read, he spends very little time on scholarly disputes such as about contradictions between texts. He's a critic not a scholar. He's even more concise in matters of biography than Bryson, since he thinks reading the plays is a more valuable exercise.