There is a lot to say about Shakespeare, but there is not a lot to know. Bill Bryson, everyone’s favorite kindly uncle, lays the facts bare while gently chiding all of the (mostly bonkers) “hopeful suppositions” that have been presented as facts by well-meaning and often obsessed fans, historians, and scholars.
Bryson, himself an acolyte at the altar of Shakespeare, paints a bright and brisk portrait of the man that we know to be Shakespeare. We know very few things about him; there are only a handful of days where we can say for certain where he was and what he was doing. We are not even entirely sure of what he looked like, and scholars throughout history have messed with the facts to suit their own needs. The bust of Shakespeare at Stratford in the Holy Trinity Church, made by people who had actually seen him, was whitewashed over years later by a man who found its coloring indecent and garish- despite the fact that the bust was in its original colorful state.
People believe that he was a sailor because he talked about the sea! People believe that he was actually Queen Elizabeth! People believe that, because he twice used the word “lame” in two separate sonnets, that he MUST have been disabled! There has been so much desire throughout the last few centuries to bend ideas and hopes into fact that we have a garbled and mostly imagined picture of who Shakespeare was and what he did as part of our cultural language. People have ached to paint a portrait of the man, but really all we have is his language.
“From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things—as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.”
Bryson has no patience for the grand opinion-based proclamations throughout time, and he takes great joy in dismantling them. He takes aim at dozens of bizarre statements and “facts”, but always keeps his barely-stifled giggles in check. He takes particular umbrage with the many arguments that Shakespeare did not actually write his work, and those that state that he could not have actually existed.
“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. Shakespeare “never owned a book,” a writer for the New York Times gravely informed readers in one doubting article in 2002. The statement cannot actually be refuted, for we know nothing about his incidental possessions. But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probable that what is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books.”
I did not pick this book up hoping to learn anything new, but I did! Bryson goes into great detail surrounding the very little that we really know about Jacobean theater, and it’s astounding to know how many guesses we have accepted as fact. My favorite new bit of information though, is actually a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne. After being duped into providing a forward for a widely mocked book about Shakespeare actually being Francis Bacon, he wrote to a friend that “this shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody again as long as I live”.
I plan to use that line in the VERY near future.