Monday, September 7, 2009

Shakespeare - The World as Stage, By Bill Bryson

My Labor Day goal was to complete some of the 18 half-finished books on my side table, lest they tumble onto and injure me. One successfully put away was "Shakespeare - The World as Stage" by Bill Bryson, which if written by almost anyone else could have been brutally boring. But no one does humor like the British, and Bryson does it very well indeed.

How and why so many books could have been written about a man about whom we know almost nothing is a bit of a mystery, but then Shakespeare is hardly any man. A lot of Bryson's book is a look at just that issue - a lot about a little. What recorded history tells us about Shakespeare could be written on the inside of a matchbook, but academic analysis is endless.

I think that Bryson hits the nail on the head when he says, "Shakespeare's genius had to do not really with facts, but with ambition, intrigue, love, sufferings - things that aren't taught in school." This refers to the much debated issue of Shakespeare's education, or lack thereof. I loved how Bryson compares him to Ben Jonson, whose "learning hangs like bunting on every word." Bryson thinks it is a good thing that Shakespeare wasn't overly educated, saying, if he had, " ... he would almost certainly have been less Shakespeare and more of a showoff..."

This book is also chocked full of fun little facts, presented as only Bryson can, i.e., "Much has been written about the size of Shakespeare's vocabulary. It is actually impossible to say how many words Shakespeare knew.... Marvin Spevack in his magnificent and hefty concordance - the most scrupulous, not to say obsessive assessment of Shakespearean idiom ever undertaken - counts 29,000 words...not terribly impressive...the average person today knows about 50,000.... Anyway and obviously, it wasn't so much a matter of how many words he used, but what he did with them, and no one has ever done more."

Another example - "His real gift was as a phrasemaker. If we take the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as our guide, then Shakespeare produced roughly one-tenth of all the most quotable utterances written or spoken in English since its inception - a clearly remarkable proportion."

Equally fascinating and humorous was the discussion of the, "...seemingly insatiable urge on the part of quite a number of people to believe that the plays of Williams Shakespeare were written by someone other than William Shakespeare." Bryson's comical conveyance turns bromidic facts to jolly-good fun, i.e., "...for a brief time a comparatively popular candidate for Shakespearean authorship was Christopher Marlowe. He was the right age, had the requisite talent, and would certainly had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work. The idea was that Marlowe's death was faked, and that he spent the next twenty years hidden away either in Kent or Italy ... during which time he cranked out most of Shakespeare's oeuvre."

I'm pretty certain I would have skipped this chapter, if not the whole book had it not been for Bryson's writing, but I'm glad I read his version of Shakespeare's history as I learned more about Shakespeare than I knew (not saying much actually), or would ever have know since my reading bends a little away from academics. I did, however, learn a few new words, which is always cool. Prolixity, which means tediously long, which this post is, and idiolect, a variety of a language unique to an individual. A few English teachers and editors have accused me of having an idiotic idiolect, but I don't care - I gotta be meeeeee.

To read, or not to read "Shakespeare - The World as Stage"? If you obsess over Shakespeare or Bill Bryson's writing, read.

Check out this link to Shakespearean quotes - pretty fun to see them all in one place.

Be not afraid of greatness. Asses are made to bear, and so are you. Here's ado to lock up honesty. Done to death by slanderous tongue. Now go we in content. Parting is such sweet sorrow.


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