I’ve been going through a Shakespeare kick with The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV Pt. 1, Henry IV Pt. 2, and Henry V) starring most of my favourite British actors, but instead of just reading some straight Shakespeare to get my fix, I picked up Bill Bryson’s short biography of William Shakespeare himself. Short, because as Bryson quickly points out, we know almost nothing about the greatest playwright of the English language.
The biography follows life as you might expect. Where and when Shakespeare was born, where he lived, who he knew, what he did for a living, troubling moments he had to overcome, and where he died. The problem of course is that we know so little for sure, but there are many theories and alternatives out there that people can subscribe to. So instead of providing the reader with a tidy history of a man and his work, Bryson’s tale reads like an essay where every probable version of the truth is included. This may sound unreadable, but the result is a refreshing take on a controversial issue. Instead of one side just presenting the evidence to support their argument, all (reasonable) sides are considered, albeit with a healthy dose of typical Bryson wit.
You may be thinking that this sounds all fine and dandy, but the last thing you want to read is an academic diatribe about the minutiae of Shakespeare’s life. Pause for a moment and consider this. We aren’t just talking about the subtleties of writing styles or lost manuscripts found in an attic that may or may not be in his handwriting. We are talking about the big stuff: How he spelled his name; Which version of his portrait is the most accurate, if any; Where in the world he was for a significant portion of his life. The result is a highly accessible conversation on the enduring mystery surrounding Shakespeare that only seems to add to the marvel that is his surviving work.
I don’t have much else to say about this one. I really enjoyed it. It’s accessible to readers who don’t know a whole about Shakespeare, but it also has enough depth to please readers who already know the basics. Bryson is a fantastic author and I’ll read anything he writes. I hope you like it as much as I did.