This article was first published on Suite101.com on January 29th 2012.
As a true anglophile author must, Bill Bryson examines the life of England's most famous playwright with his unique personable approach and dry sense of humour.
It is a brave man who tackles the life of Shakespeare. So much has already been written about him by so many learned scholars that it is difficult to see what another book on the subject could bring to enlighten us all the more.
But Bryson does not lack the courage to tackle so tricky a subject and has produced his own book on the most renowned playwright and poet that ever existed. However, he has adopted an original approach in that he provides a condensing of lots of views and interpretations of Shakespeare and his life and works and collects it all in one easy-to-read volume with pictures. Obviously, because Shakespeare's canon has been around for hundreds of years and many academics as well as members of the public with their own strong opinions have written about the bard, Bill Bryson acts as an intellectual sieve, extracting the best nuggets of Shakespearean knowledge written, talked about and studied over the years and in his unique voice, presents them to a willing public in a way that is entertaining to read.
Having such wonderful illustrations does add to the book: to see Shakespeare's contemporaries, fellow playwrights, maps of the time as well as engravings and woodprints depicting the lives of the people helps the reader to understand Shakespeare's world to a greater degree and also means that this book will remain in your library. It is useful as a reference book for anyone wanting to know key facts about the man and his life or literally to browse the illustrations for pleasure.
Bryson has divided the work into accessible chapters to address different periods or aspects of Shakspeare's life. He adopts an almost chronological order starting with an introductory chapter called "In Search of Shakespeare"about how little is known about the man and leading in an almost circular fashion to "Claimants" about all the people who believe that Shakespeare didn't actually write a lot of his works, (a fact that is a product of not knowing an awful lot about him) and "The Lost Years, 1585-1592" where little is documented about Shakespeare's whereabouts and activities and "The Reign of King James, 1603-1616" where he really began to flourish.
The chapters are concise and focused with illustrations that more than support or clarify the discussion. This adds to the accessibility of the book, making it a perfect starting point for anyone harbouring an interest in Shakespeare who has previously been wary because of the high brow nature of material and the snobbery that can sometimes appear when talking about this "literary genius".
You will notice there has been mention quite frequently that there is a lot of information about Shakespeare which is missing. And this is the premise of the book really: that there is not really a lot known about Shakespeare. Bryson's opening line is "For somebody who has been dead for nearly four hundred years, William Shakespeare remains awfully active" and is testament to the fact that Shakespeare is still a moot discussion point precisely for this reason. In fact, Bryson himself is victim to Shakespeare's enduring appeal, the fact that he has an air of mystery about him and yet his work continues to capture new readers in every generation without any slowness of pace.
This lack of concrete fact extends to everything that we know about Shakespeare: what he looks like, how he lived, where he lived, what he wrote. In fact, in his preface, Bryson mentions that a more recent portrait has been discovered called the "Cobbe Portrait" that is deemed to be the most like Shakespeare out of all the images but again this is subject to debate.
Bryson's style really is his strength. There is always a sense of dry wit and sardonic humour running through his work and whilst writing in an intelligent and accomplished fashion, he really does not take himself too seriously at all.
One of my favourite examples of this is towards the end of the book, where Bryson is discussing the proposal that the Earl of Oxford was actually the author of Shakespeare's plays and he refutes this decisively in the following lines: "The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius." Such sarcasm is refreshing.
I would recommend this book as an introduction to Shakespeare to anyone and with the addition of a CD with Sir John Gielgud reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, you really couldn't go wrong.