Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: Elizabethan Juxto

The never ending speculation about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays includes the distinct possibility that it was a man named William Shakespeare. If you accept this as a premise, see if you can find a 2008 Recorded Books release of Bill Bryson reading his biography (of a sort), entitled, Shakespeare: The World as Stage.

Unlike most authors engaged to read their work, Bryson is good at it. And, though you won’t find much new in it about the playwright — it relies heavily on words such as “if” and “maybe” and “perhaps” —  it is tickling to listen to, particularly so for anyone who writes.

Shakespeare has been the subject of thousands of books, of course, so it is something of presumption for Bryson to add one more.  He admits as much in chapter one. And yet he has a strong voice, his digging into the Elizabethan Era is fruitful, and his storytelling is strong; he deftly weaves the little uncovered about Shakespeare’s life into a portrait of juxtaposition.

For example, Shakespeare’s works appeared at a time when it was a crime to be an atheist, and yet his plays have no specific Biblical references.  And though Aristotle’s Poetics — a ruling document in the theater at the time — argued that plays were required to track action of just a single day, Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies were clearly in violation. He was also a man, who as Shaw said,  “was a great storyteller — if someone else had written the story first.” He borrowed his plots from any place he could find them.

What sticks out to me, though, in Bryson’s work are the little gems. He tells the story, for instance, of an early play for which opening night drew a large crowd, and yielded more than three pounds, a large sum at the time, for the theater. The money was put into a little box and taken to an office: the box office.

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One Response to Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: Elizabethan Juxto

  1. Elizabeth Gottlieb says:

    What a delightful review. Not only fun to read, but so inviting that I’ve reserved a copy at the library. While I subscribe to the theory that Shakespeare was a Jewish woman, the articles to that effect being mercilessly convincing, I continue to hold an image of Shakespeare the man from years of habit and study. And listening to biographies while driving is my new literary indulgence. Thank you, Lary!

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