Shakespeare | Bill Bryson
195 pages, Rs325
That Bill Bryson chose to write about the life of William Shakespeare means, among other things, that there ought to be a market for the subject. One of Britain’s favourite resident Americans, Bryson takes on the exacting job of sifting through reams of research already available, to paint a convincing portrait of the life and times of England’s most celebrated literary figure in 195 pages.
Convincing it is, definitive it isn’t. But even so, for a subject that’s solely the domain of rigorous academic research, it’s a surprisingly accessible and breezy story. Though full of first- and second-hand information, Bryson reminds us, often on purpose, that the Bard is more elusive than all the academic writings make him out to be and that it’s indeed impossible to write a “Life of Shakespeare”. The purpose of Bryson’s book—part of HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures—seems to be to identify the many paradoxes surrounding all things Shakespearean. And publishers claim it’s already a best-seller in the US and UK.
Freeze frame:A 1667 portrait of Shakespeare by Gilbert Soest. Bill Bryson is at his journalistic best in this accessible, breezy account of the Bard’s life.
Depending largely on other biographers (some of whom, Bryson convinces us, are ridiculously arrogant about their conclusions), trips to quaint places associated with Shakespeare and museums, Bryson’s Shakespeare is as much a travelogue and history of 16th century England as a biography. Seemingly insignificant details—that during Shakespeare’s time, up to 40% of brides in England used to be pregnant, that any kind of trade in wool was considered usury at that time, that plague broke out frequently in London—add up to a portrait of the England in which Shakespeare prospered.
Bryson begins with the kind of story that he typically has the eye and penchant for—that of the disposal of a portrait once owned by Richard Plantagenet-Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. The portrait was of a man “sporting a trim beard”, with a “confident, serenely rakish” expression who, Bryson tells us, was Shakespeare.
From the story behind this portrait, Bryson moves to Shakespeare’s early years, his lineage and parents, his schooling and marriage to Anne Hathaway when he was 15. As Bryson pieces together Shakespeare’s years as a fledgling stage actor in London, he also peers into the history of the most famous playhouses of London, to the theatre milieu of the time and a new breed called “Puritans” who detested the theatre—“They considered theatres, with their lascivious puns and unnatural cross-dressing, a natural hunt for prostitutes…” By focusing as much on the times as on his protagonist in this chapter, Bryson helps us understand Shakespeare’s imagery and language, which he follows up in detail in the next chapter, Plays.
Does Bryson say anything about Shakespeare that’s original? This reviewer hasn’t followed up on the latest that’s been unearthed about the greatest English poet’s life, but by Bryson’s admission, the answer to that question is no. Bryson does concede that his subject is a genius and his interest in Shakespeare’s work is unmistakable. He sieves out the probabilities from the possibilities. He uses the important bits of evidence and assesses them with humour and the best kind of journalistic fervour.
Bryson recently took over as the chancellor of Durham University, UK, and said in an interview that he has yet to get used to academia. After reading this book, it’s not difficult to imagine why. With The Last Continent: Travels Through Small Town America (1989), his back-to-the-roots trip of self-discovery and reportage on suburban American life; Down Under (2000), his travels in Australia; and the acclaimed A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), the science-meets-literary reportage book, Bryson has become one of the most saleable, wittiest raconteurs of contemporary America and England.
What he tells us about Shakespeare is in keeping with what he does best; he tells us that often the best subject for a journalist is one that’s the most written about.