A Review of Shakespeare: The World As Stage
"More than for any other writer, Shakespeare's words stand separate from his life. this was a man so good at disguising his feelings that we can't ever be sure that he had any." --Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World As Stage
In his latest book, Bill Bryson has done for Shakespeare in a little over 200 pages what he did for the universe in the 500-plus pages of A Short History of Nearly Everything. In that wonderful book Bryson, no scientist, sets out to describe what science knows about the origin of the universe, and then gets down to cases: physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth science, life science; in short, what is known and how it got that way. With Shakespeare Bryson once again finds himself the non-expert author straightening things out about the world's greatest writer for the interested, though non-specialist reader. And he does it admirably.
First, the raison d'Ítre of the book, a special pleading each new biographer of Shakespeare must feel compelled to make: "...this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as because this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record." The series in question is the HarperCollins Eminent Lives, "...a series of brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures..." The other "canonical figures" in the series so far include George Balanchine, Francis Crick, U. S. Grant, and de Tocqueville, begging the question of what makes for a canonical figure. Clearly, Shakespeare is the big gun so far among this array of artillery.
Whatever its origin, Bryson's brief biography is bracing, fun, fluent, and sure-footedly genial. If you have read any of Bryson's works (The Mother Tongue, Neither Here Nor There, Notes From A Small Island, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and others) you will pick up this slim volume with high expectations for a mix of entertainment, fact, engaging anecdote, penetrating observation, stylistic clarity, and general bonhomie. Bryson does not disappoint. He hits on all of the main, fact-based aspects of what we know (or more often, don't know) about Shakespeare and how (or how we don not) know it.
He begins with Shakespeare's appearance, and that image we all want to believe in, the Chandos portrait. Never one for dull historicity when a good anecdote will do, Bryson tells us how the second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (whose house in Stowe had nine flush toilets, we are told) inherited a fortune and then "...astonished his associates, and no doubt himself, by managing to lose every penny of his inheritance in just nine years through a series of spectacularly unsound investments." And so it goes. The tone is set early: friendly, probing, genial but not apt to entertain the illogical, embracing the telling anecdote, but never veering too far from a factual foundation. Bryson looks at the three images of Shakespeare that have any sort of claim to authenticity: the said Chandos portrait (purchased by the Earl of Ellesmere and eventually donated as the foundation piece to the National Portrait Gallery); the Droeshout engraving of the First Folio; and, the one with the best chance of being actually authentic, the Gheerart Janssen effigy at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, originally painted, then ordered whitewashed by Malone in the eighteenth century, now repainted again, an important series of events, Bryson points out, because "...much of the detail is not carved on but painted." The paradox, one of many abounding in Shakespeare biography, "...is that we all recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don't really know what he looked like...He is at once the best known and least known of figures."
So it goes throughout this brisk biography. What is know is stated, and how it is known, but then what has accreted by supposition, fancy, wish fulfillment, and fabrication is punctured to leave us with a small essence of knowledge about a man who made no effort to become widely known, but of whom we want so badly to know. "With so little to go on in the way of hard facts, students of Shakespeare's life are left with essentially three possibilities: to pick minutely over legal documents...; to speculate...; or to persuade themselves that they know more than they actually do." Bryson's real strength as a biographer is that while stating the few facts that are know clearly, he does not speculate or fool himself, or us, into a set of unfounded beliefs. He hastens to point out, as all Shakespeare biographers must, that "we know more about Shakespeare than about almost any other dramatist of his age," which is true, but also is quick to add "It is because we have so much of Shakespeare's work [Bryson notes that Shakespeare's plays account for about 15% of all plays we have from his age] that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person."
As with all biographies of Shakespeare, Bryson adds a broad brush background to Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Readers of other Bryson books will know that he is addicted to lists, and in the background chapters lists supply in rapid fire fashion the milieu. For instance, in a discussion of disease he mentions, in one feverish paragraph (if you will) "tuberculosis, measles, rickets, scurvy, two types of smallpox...scrofula, dysentery...tertian fever, quartian fever, puerperal fever, ship's fever, quotidian fever, spotted fever...'frenzies,' 'foul evils'..." Where a great deal could be said on a topic, Bryson is content to supply a good anecdote, even if it is not strictly apposite to Shakespeare's day, like his discussion of "English sweats," a terrifying disease of Henry VIII's reign which was extinct by the mid-sixteenth century (as Bryson fairly points out). A discussion of recusancy, Puritanism, state control of religion, the persecution of believers (of all stripes) and the general religious background of the time lead to the winning anecdote about John Stubbs doffing his hat to the queen after the very queen had ordered his hand cut off. Bryson is never content with dry exegesis when a interesting anecdote will fill the bill.
The book is generally free of footnotes (I counted only six), is not encumbered with a critical apparatus, and provides only a select bibliography at the end. Being a non-specialist, however, Bryson pins his observations and interpretations on the leading scholarly authorities. Many are mentioned in his pages: Peter Blayney, Bullough, Kermode, Schoenbaum, Stanley Wells--especially Stanley Wells, who is quoted and referenced throughout--Carolyn Spurgeon, Otto Jespersen, Harry Levin, Stephen Orgle, the venerable if obtusely magisterial A. L. Rowse, Sylvan Barnet, Jonathan Bate, E. K. Chambers, Andrew Gurr, Stephen Greenblatt, R. A. Foakes, Ann Thompson, and so on. A representation of the serious, historical view of Shakepeare and the best of modern scholars are Bryson's authorities.
With regard to the life itself, Bryson nods to the usual summary of parentage and kin, a probable--though not certain--King's New School education, the deer poaching episode--less certain yet. For all of which Bryson retains his ironic detachment from armies of "tireless" Shakespeare investigators. He is content to entertain us with facts like "Until 1604 the age of consent was twelve for a girl, fourteen for a boy," rather than grub among the records--though he gives them their due. Where facts are certain, he stresses them: "Two of the few certainties of Shakespeare's life are that his marriage lasted till his death and that he sent much of his wealth back to Stratford..." Now there are solid facts.
To the question, how did an anonymous youth become the most famous playwright in one of the largest cities of Europe in such a brief period, he nods to the William Knell/Queen's Men story and also the Lost Years speculation of time in Catholic Lancashire, but cautions, using the authority of Frank Kermode, that "'There seems to be no reason whatever to believe this...'" We don't know for sure how it happened, we just know it did, as attested by the Robert Greene's upstart crow attack on Shakespeare in 1592. Of course, the Greene-Chettle episode makes for entertaining reading, and the lesson that is drawn from Chettle's eventual apology is the fact that "...no one would ever attack Shakespeare in such a way again."
The dramatis personae of the early years are all touched on in this biography, Marlowe, Kyd, Burbage, Heminges and Condell, Southampton, Edward Alleyn, and so on, never in unnecessary detail. The early plays, and their order of composition are also undertaken, but, as we all know, "No one can say" for sure the order in which they were composed, nor is anyone every likely to. Shakespeare's great middle period, the period from 1597-1607 or so is also treated rather briefly, with admirable restraint from speculation about the man from his creations. The facts remain central: the purchase of New Place, the coat of arms, the construction of the Globe, Shakespeare's growing portfolio of investments, played out against a backdrop of the Essex rebellion and the end of the Elizabethan age.
The sonnets and the historical speculation on exactly what they tell us about their author gets disproportionate attention during the chapters devoted to Jacobean events. Along the way the issue of Shakespeare's sexuality is addressed clearly and without obfuscation. "The sonnets have driven scholars to the point of distraction because they are so frankly confessional in tone and yet so opaque." And so it is. Bryson summarizes sanely, saying "Looking for biography...in the sonnets is almost certainly an exercise in futility." His handling of the various issues, chronologies, implications, or persons related to the sonnets is sage, level headed and, like the rest of this admirable little book, non-speculative.
The chapter dealing with Shakespeare's death is warm and engaging. Bryson reviews the disastrous events in the Shakespeare family in March-April 1616 and summarizes humanly, "Months don't get much worse than that." We like this book for its humanizing warmth and sympathetic understanding more than we ever could like a more detailed work on Shakespeare replete with a thoroughgoing critical apparatus. Bryson traces the Shakespeare line of descent, which ended in 1670 with the death of Elizabeth, his granddaughter. And then moves on to the publication of the First Folio and the debt we owe Heminges and Condell. He points to Shakespeare's "tomb", but surprisingly, for a book that loves anecdote, does not go into the invasive antics of Delia Bacon, but that is because he is saving his treatment of Bacon and her ilk for the final chapter.
It is a sad commentary on our time, and we should expect more of ourselves, having more access to facts, that Bryson must add a final chapter to his book dealing with "Claimants." That is, that crackpot modern notion--and it is important to understand that this is a very modern notion, no one in Shakespeare's life time or for a couple of centuries thereafter thought of it--that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Bryson tells us that the number of published books claiming that someone other than the Stratford man wrote these great works exceeds 5000! Redressing these ridiculous claims does become a biographic imperative.
And Bryson is the man to do it. "So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment--actually all of it, every bit--involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact." Bravo Bryson. He goes on to puncture the silly speculations of the Baconians, Oxfordians, Marlovians, et al. "The only absence among contemporary records is not of documents connecting Shakespeare to his works but of documents connecting any other human being to them." And that's a fact. Those who have taken up such views are always marginal poseurs attracted by the high reputation of Shakespeare with nothing other to offer than a conspiracy theory for their reason to associate themselves with that reputation. They are actors, novelists, personalities, cranks, relatives of their candidate, liars, anything but serious scholars, write as they will. They join that scourge of the information age, the conspiracy theorists with their wayward and unsubstantiated stories about the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations, deniers of the holocaust, promoters of chariots of the gods, alien abductions, the Protocols of Zion, and so on. The stagnant swill that chokes the marginal banks of the turgid river of serious scholarship. But I digress. Bryson's take on this scourge is lighter, more genial, more entertaining, in dismissing this literary "selective squinting." I could quote his conclusions at length, but better, get the book and read it yourself. You will be glad you did.