Sunday, 10 January 2016

Book Review: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bryson’s 2007 Shakespeare biography doesn’t cover any new ground, but it’s immensely readable. However, Bryson is so keen on reminding us there’s so little real, hard evidence of Shakespeare’s life that it’s pretty pointless trying to surmise whether he was a Catholic, the state of his marriage, or what he had for breakfast.
I actually agree with Bryson. I’m not that interested in Shakespeare’s life story. Instead, the play’s always the thing. I’ve never been one for poring through The Merchant of Venice or Othello and trying to find clues to the author’s life. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a good illustration—you could go bonkers trying to work out if the writer is gay or straight or bi or even actually Shakespeare himself. As Bryson points out, looking for ‘biography—Shakespeare’s or anyone’s—in the sonnets is almost certainly an exercise in futility’.
But whilst this may be true, I would still expect a biographer to have some sort of opinion. Bryson’s point (and he makes it continually) is that you can’t really know anything much about Shakespeare at all. We don’t even know how he spelled or pronounced his name. 
As much as I agree with Bryson, I kind of wanted some wild conjectures. Of course, what Bryson does so well is rubbish some of these crazy theories in a funny way, for example the bizarre Delia Bacon who decided Shakespeare was in fact, Francis Bacon by months of academic research which seemed to involve spurning any archives in favour of hanging out where Bacon used to frequent, picking up frequencies by ‘a kind of intellectual osmosis’.
Another thing Bryson does really well is context—he captures a myriad of small details about life in early modern England, dropping them in seamlessly. I would say for a biography of Shakespeare, a large proportion of the book is spent exploring the everyday life of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. This is as it should be of course, but Shakespeare isn’t slotted into any of these scenarios Bryson paints.
There’s an amazing section on London—back in those days the City of London was a cramped, tiny city stuffed into ‘448 exceedingly cosy acres within the city walls’. Greater London was beyond the gates, often slum-like shanty houses while Chelsea, Hampstead and Hammersmith were separate villages. As we know, the playhouses were outside the walls, nestled besides brothels and other places of ill-repute, ready to be closed down at the first sniff of the plague. It’s these sections which work the best. 
Bryson also does a good job of creating the idea of the network of contemporary dramatists—your Fletchers and Marlowes and Johsnons and the trials and tribulations of the early theatres, such as The Red Lion, The Curtain, and Burbage’s cunningly named The Theatre. There’s even a lovely little section on what might have happened if scrappy Marlowe hadn’t got himself stabbed to death in a brawl (I have to agree. Perhaps he’d be the favoured playwright in today’s schools).
He includes fascinating details about the First Folio of 1623, printing generally and the good and bad quartos. Again, nothing new to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Shakespeare, but Bryson makes it immensely readable. My favourite section probably has to be on James I, described as a lurching weirdo with ‘an odd shape and distinctive waddle’ whose tongue was too big for his mouth and who played with his codpiece all the time. Suddenly John Webster’s gallery of freaks in The Duchess of Malfi makes much more sense (I always did prefer Jacobean to Elizabethan drama).
Shakespeare: The World as a Stage doesn’t spend much time at all on the plays—a mere twenty pages. As Bryson suggests, picking out the number of occurrences of certain words or looking for lexical sets around say, Italy or sailing, doesn’t shed any certain light on Shakespeare’s life. This does seem short-sighted; textual deconstruction is in a way, one of the best tools we have for deciphering not only the cultures and customs of the time, but textual meanings, even if we can’t be sure they directly relate to Shakespeare’s life. But Bryson isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. Readers can look elsewhere for literary analysis.
One thing that’s really missing though is images and illustrations. Now Bryson’s a well-known guy. He sells a fair amount of books. Shakespeare is published by an imprint of Harper Collins. They’re pretty well-known too. I guess what I’m trying to say is—why no images? I know copyright can be an expensive and tricky issue (a work colleague is currently trying to sort out images for her forthcoming book and it looks like a right ball-ache. We helpfully offered to sneak into the library and sketch the images for her) but I’m sure there must be enough cash between Bryson and publisher combined. Bryson spends paragraphs and paragraphs describing paintings and illustrations. When I came to the first one, I read his description, got a picture in my mind’s eye (see what I did there?), then went flicking through to find the image section. There wasn’t one. How strange, I thought. Maybe he won’t describe any other images. This is not the case.
Every new description of a painting or portrait got me reaching for my tablet to bring up the image as I read on. So we get a description of a ‘dark oval portrait’ of a ‘balding but not unhandsome man of about forty (the Chandos portrait—you’ll probably know this one but you’ll Google just to check), the intricate description of the City walls with no map to pore over, and a description of a sketch of the inside of the playhouses—I can only assume this is the famous one on the front of all the older New Mermaid editions of early modern plays but I couldn’t be arsed to check by this point. It’s utterly, utterly bizarre.
Bryson’s Bard biography is a light-hearted quick read. It covers no new ground, but it’s accessible and wry. Perhaps a good starter text for those new to early modern theatre, but do read with a search engine to hand if you’d like to see the various paintings he talks about. If not, it might be fun to draw your own representation from his descriptions, or maybe use it as one of those team-building exercises, where you describe and your partner sketches. The possibilities are endless.

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