Note: this is book 1 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.
I’m really not quite sure why Bill Bryson wrote Shakespeare: The World as a Stage. I know that writing his books is Bryson’s thing (and God bless him for it), but in most ways this book isn’t about the eponymous bard. It is instead about the Shakespeare shaped hole in history given that outside of his writings we know next to nothing about the man except for the few uninteresting facts that can be scraped from a paltry few official documents. This is substantially less interesting than actually knowing things about the guy.
Really, Bryson simply moves through various stages of Shakespeare’s life and basically says, “Nope, don’t know nothing about what he was doing at this point, either. But here’s some interesting side notes!” These side-bits ARE often interesting, though, and the book is at its best when Bryson is chatting you up about the culture and civilization surrounding Shakespeare’s age –the Protestant vs. Catholic conflicts, the defeat of the Spanish armada, the plague, the business of running a theater, social hierarchies, etc. I was often irritated when the author returned to discussions about everything we don’t know about Shakespeare because I had gotten caught up in these trivia. I kind of wish that Bryson had written a more expansive history book about the Victorian era, with Shakespeare included in a chapter or three.
But it helps that this is Bill Bryson, and even though he’s not being as witty and funny as he usually is in something like The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid or his travel diaries, he’s still snappy and easy to read. The best bits are actually towards the end, where Bryson goes after the kooky Shakespeare conspiracy theorists –those who think that Shakespeare did NOT write Shakespeare and was secretly someone else or even a group of people– with the kind of wry, poking you in the ribs while we share a joke kind of way. This is the kind of Bryson I liked best, even if there was all too little of him.
Still, fun as it was to read I still closed the book at the end and thought “Well what was the point of that?” It was, if you will forgive me for making the painfully obvious joke, much ado about nothing.