Monday, April 4, 2011

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: Shakespeare and Bryson: two of my favorite authors.

Summary: Do we know who Shakespeare really was? Bryson corrals the facts, the legends and the outright lies in an attempt to reconstruct the poorly understood life of the most successful practitioner of the English language.

My Thoughts: He's one of those historical personalities for whom we need use only his surname. There is, there was, no other Shakespeare worthy of contemplating when the name is spoken. All names other than William sound like jokes. Ted Shakespeare? Bob Shakespeare? Perish the thoughts.

Yet, there had to have been more, if only to flesh out William's life: father, mother, siblings, wife, kids, grandparents, grandchildren. Who were they? What can their lives tell us about the master of the Elizabethan stage?

The fact is that we know very little about the man who penned Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. And that fact seems amazing, when we consider that he is attributed with adding about 10% of the words we use today in modern English. His plays each could generate more than 100 new words, or lexemes, for the language, some of which stuck, some of which did not.

We have some legal documents, most concerning birth, marriage and death, but beyond that, we're lost when it comes to defining the life of William Shakespeare. Did he write the plays attributed to him? Five thousand publications over the past few centuries have attempted to prove that any one of 50 other individuals may have "written Shakespeare." Are the answers to the questions in his life in the text of his plays in code form? Did he try to speak to us about himself through his sonnets, or the dedications that preceded his works?

There are gaps in time that lead even the most level-headed historian down erroneous paths. Did his absence from any kind of English record in 1592-1593, plague years in the city of London, and the emergence of plays written with Italian backgrounds in the coming years mean that he took a Mediterreanean sojourn during that time? As an historian, and an Italian, I found that notion intriguing, and would love to find the answer. But where does one start? Venice (as in The Merchant of)? Verona? Did Italian inn keepers keep good records back then, and have any of them survived? Can anybody fly me to Italy so I can start this quest?

This book is slightly off the typical Bill Bryson path, in that his witty indignation is tamed by the topic and the format. Indignation is borne of frustration and disbelief with human actions, and while there are many, many people through time who have messed with the legacy of the most celebrated playwright of all, critics who are deserved of a good old'fashioned Bryon tongue lashing, the author refrains from letting fly. Instead, we get a technical, dissecting look at the facts, with classic Bryson humor sprinkled here and there as warranted.

In the end, we know a lot more about Shakespeare, but find that for every answer we now have, there are ten more questions.

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