I finished this book fairly quickly; it’s short, and with good reason. Bill Bryson, in his typical dry humor, explains that we know almost nothing about William Shakespeare, and then spends the rest of this short biography (2007) telling us why. To supplement the scarce details of W. Shakespeare’s biography, Bryson provides a very interesting introduction to Elizabethan and Jacobean history. His approach is to give us a broad picture of life in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with the occasional glimpse into the playwright’s life when those details are available to us.
This book about Shakespeare isn’t for the expert in English literature. The focus isn’t on Shakespeare’s works (although they make frequent appearances), but instead is aimed at giving a realistic look at life in the 1600s and explaining why living conditions during that time make it difficult for us to know many details about Shakespeare himself. In order to illuminate some of those details, Bryson shows how much historical digging has been done: we have information about W.S.’s friends, coworkers, and family, all of which shed some light on his life.
I really enjoy Bryson’s writing; his dry style and obvious love of language really appeal to me. I also like his tendency to write histories for the lay reader. One of my favorites is A Short History of Nearly Everything, an introduction to nearly all branches of scientific inquiry written just for non-experts like me. Bryson also revels in those historical oddities that rarely make it into history textbooks; weird people, strange names, odd events, and historical contradictions make frequent appearances in his writing.
I found myself wondering if Bryson would deal with the Shakespeare deniers, those who insist that W.S. didn’t really write all those plays and sonnets. Fortunately for me, the entire last chapter of this short book is devoted to exploring those claims, so I wasn’t disappointed.
I learned a lot from this book, and in the process I enjoyed myself, so in that sense it’s worth it to spend a few hours reading it. I found myself left wanting to watch Shakespeare-inspired movies: Leo and Claire in Romeo and Juliet, anybody? Or, my favorite, Much Ado About Nothing with Emma Thompson (although Keanu Reeves was an odd choice in his role there).