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.