With the move to Atlanta, new job, and new routines, it took me an embarrassingly long time to read Bill Bryson’s short little work on Shakespeare (it only just reaches 196 pages). Either way – it was a fun read, and just the type of book that’s easy to pick up and put down frequently. Here’s why…
To start – I never really knew much about Shakespeare. I knew the basics. And I realized starting the book that I’ve never actually read one of his plays all the way through, though I have seen a couple performed.
He’s obviously an important guy – I use his words and allusions all day long, but he’s also so important that studies and books about Shakespeare tend to be a bit intense…and a bit dense.
That sounds like a topic for Bill Bryson. Topics that you should know about (like your house), but are too specialized or too dense to tackle for the moderately interested reader.
The approach of this book wasn’t so much a biography as a life and times sort of book. He takes this approach because it turns out that we actually don’t know that much about Shakespeare the person. He never kept a diary, and no contemporaries wrote much of anything about him. The only biographical details we have about him are from court records (a couple lawsuits he was involved in, incorporation documents, marriage license, etc). All of which make for about 1 page of actual biography.
Most all Shakespeare biographers go off into pure speculation after that – but Bill Bryson instead explores his world, his work, and contemporary scholarship and weaves it all together into a still rather short book. But I’ve said that already.
Here’s a few things that I still remember 1 day after finishing it…
- Theater was a big deal in the early 1600s
- English monarchs were really, really bizarre
- I have no idea how Shakespeare was able to write, perform, run the business of, direct, and manage his plays all at once…and still sleep
- People who create conspiracy theories around Shakespeare are plain batty
- Shakespeare was not very upstanding when it came to taking care of his family
- He lived with some really famous contemporaries – which definitely contributed to his genius – a clustering effect
- His work matured just like every other world-class practitioner – and he certainly put in the time and effort. His creativity was definitely put down to work and environment over any in-born “talent”
- People had a completely different relationship to copyright and performing works then than they do now. In a way, internet piracy is creating a return to the business world of the 1600s where content creators made little, and the real money was in execution and marketing
So, like all of Bill Bryson’s books, if you are interested in a topic but want someone to wade through the specialist literature and relay engaging, informed prose – Bill Bryson is the guy to go with – and if that topic is Shakespeare, then this book is for you.