The most celebrated dramatist in world literature, the most gifted poet, a man who enriched the English language with more than 2000 words and phrases, a man almost synonymous with English literature and yet also a man who we know so little about. William Shakespeare has been an enigma for centuries. In his book, ‘Shakespeare: The World as Stage“ Bill Bryson attempts to give new life to the Shakespearean story. Bill Bryson, well known as the author of ” A Short History of Nearly Everything ” had in that single book, explained literally just that through his witty and engrossing style. In ‘Shakespeare’ too he employs it to much success.
He gives us an account of the bard’s life through concrete facts, document studies of earlier scholars and narrates his journey to find answers to the life of the most studied yet the least known man in literary history. The numerous assumptions about Shakespeare’s life begin with his birth, as there is no solid evidence to suggest that he was born on 23 April 1564. It is a rather a convenient conclusion drawn from the fact that his baptism was recorded on 26 April in the Church records and that he died exactly 52 years after his birth on 23 April 1623. He received a decent grammar school education at Stratford. Then at age of 15, he seems to have disappeared -not surprising as his life features many such disappearances- due to the most accepted theory of having left Stratford to avoid prosecution for poaching at Charlecote. But Bryson points out that there was no deer park in Charlecote till the following century. He turns up in records at the age of 18 when he married Anne Hathaway, 8 years his senior and pregnant with his child. The marriage also has its share of confusion as the name of the bride was registered as Anne Whateley and not Hathaway. Whether this was because he courted two women at the same time or if it was an error on the part of the shoddy clerk is – as it always is – shrouded in mystery. Then from 1585 to 1592, there is again no record of him and these are the famous ‘Lost Years ‘– “ There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it .” Then it is assumed that he came to London and got involved with theatre first as an actor and then as a successful playwright. The rest, of course, is history. His meteoric rise as a playwright made him a fortune, though not large and brought him fame. The author also shines light into his career as a poet and the mystery associated with the “ fair youth” and “ dark lady “ of his sonnets. The story of Shakespeare ends with his death in 1623. And as is reasonable, that too had its fair share of controversies, one infamous one being the will in which he left his wife with only ‘’ the second-best bed”.
It is not just his life but his very existence that has been subject to much debate -from American Delia Bacon who was convinced that Shakespeare’s plays were infact written by her English namesake Francis Bacon to Sigmund Freud who believed that Shakespeare was actually a Frenchman named Jacques Pierre. However, the book is reasonable and logical, sticking to facts rather than fiction.The book as the author states in the beginning ‘’ was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare” but “ to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record”. He sticks to his word providing interesting and humorous insights about Shakespeare ‘s life and his times. The book doesn’t try to lean towards any one theory but gives the reader an interesting narrative of known facts. It is a charming book that removes the weariness of history and tries to honestly portray a man, as Bryson puts it rightly, who was a ‘’ literary equivalent of an electron-forever there and not there’’.
Also Read “There is nothing permanent except change“