Friday, February 3, 2012

[Shakespeare] is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron - forever there and not there.

First up, before I get into this review, I want to thank people for the kind words on my reading slump post a couple days ago. I had no motivation to read to read and was feeling down about it. And in my head I was thinking "What if I never feel like reading?" because being over-dramatic is a specialty of mine. So thank you for telling me to take a deep breath, continue watching mindless TV or playing games or whatever and read again when you feel like it. Now, review time!

Bryson and Shakespeare. It's like peanut butter and banana. I love both those things and when you put them together there is extra happiness. I was so excited when I first saw that Bill Bryson wrote Shakespeare: The World as Stage that I didn't even wait for it to come out in paperback, as I normally do. I needed this book and I needed it NOW. Or rather THEN! Because this all happened in the past.

Bryson brings the wit I love to this Shakespeare biography. He's not a Shakespeare scholar which makes this very accessible for the casual fan*. Or the more avid fan who wants something straightforward.

Here's the thing about Shakespeare: we don't really know that much about the guy. Which makes sense when you think about how long ago Shakespeare was around writing and how much time that has provided for documents and details to get lost. As archivist David Thomas says "The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position from that time...It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him. In fact we know more about Shakespeare than about almost any other dramatist of his age" (17). While it may be nice to know that we know more about him than other playwrights of his day, that doesn't exactly fill out a biography. Bryson chooses to focus on what we do know, makes clear what we don't know, and looks as the suppositions that are both logical and far-fetched. There's not a lot to go on so it makes sense this book is short.

There's a lot about life in Elizabethan/Jacobean England because of the whole we-don't-know-a-lot-about-Shakespeare thing. But we do have information about the time so we can get a better idea of the world Shakespeare inhabited, even if we don't know much about the man. And we really don't know the man. There are 3 images of Shakespeare: 1 engraving done after he had died by an artist that may have never seen Shakespeare, a good portrait that may not be of Shakespeare, and a statue that had all of the details whitewashed away in the 1700s. We only have six of Shakespeare's signatures and in none of them is his name spelled "Shakespeare".

I don't know that it's important to know who Shakespeare was. You can certainly enjoy his plays and poems without knowing anything about the guy. I mean, really, that's what people are doing now. But it would be nice to have more information. Since we don't have that, it's nice that this slim biography is funny.

One quick note, Bryson mentions how free form writing/spelling was in Shakespeare's day. I never really appreciated this until I took a 16th Century Lit class in college. I assume in a move to justify the large microfilm library the university has, we had to find a piece of 16th century lit not previously published and write a paper on it. I ended up stumbling on a poem that it would seem served as a source for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew called "A Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morrell's Skin, For Her Good Behavyour" because Shakespeare stuff just finds me. Don't think the spelling in that title is any indication of how difficult it is to read something from this time, in the original text. This wasn't a very long poem (thank God) but it took me a good 8 hours of intense reading to figure out what was written. Every letter could actually be 6 different letters and the same word would be spelled multiple ways on a single page. It's like they were purposefully trying to piss of future readers, which is kind of hilarious if you're not writing a paper. Also don't read that poem because it is not only a bad story (woman is flayed and then wrapped in a salted horses hide to break her) but it's badly written as well.

*Unlike a certain Shakespearean scholar who's book took me over a month to finish. I won't name names, but I will link links.

Title quote from page 9

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Atlas Books, 2007.