Friday, June 13, 2008

book review - Shakespeare

On one level this book about Shakespeare fails because it has very little to say with any sense of about him because so few concrete facts are accepted. But in terms of providing a travel guide to the 16th century and an example of how it is possible to be critical in historical debate without being unintelligible then Bill Bryson has produced a very enjoyable book.

Through the handful of agreed facts and historical glimpses of the great playwright Bryson takes you back to the London of The Globe and the world of Elizabethan England. This is an enjoyable journey with pleasant brushstrokes illustrating the past with a guide that is always happy to point out the hilarious and absurd as well as the important.

But alongside the search for Shakespeare and his world there is also a commentary on those that have gone into the intellectual wilderness on their way to proving wither that Shakespeare didn’t exist or that he was some kind of fraud.

Theories ranging from homosexuality to a man who hated his wife have been put forward by various historians. Those are some of the more mild propositions with a host of wacky ones that drove wither their champions mad or left them virtually discredited.

Bryson takes a swipe at most of these academics individually then in an almost exasperated tone wonders why it cannot be accepted that there was a genius named William Shakespeare who left the world such an amazing collection of plays.

One of the real stories that emerges from this book is just how miraculous it was that any of Shakespeare’s work survived. The First Folio put together a few years after his death by two friends John Heminges and Henry Condell was the major move in sealing the playwright’s legacy.

Very few plays from Shakespeare’s time survive and so the fact so many of his have is something to be wondered at. There are mentions of old copies of the Folio that are yet to be discovered and missing plays that provide not just the stuff that would fuel a literary Indiana Jones but also gets you dreaming of discoveries in an old junk shop or relative’s attic.

At the end of this book you might not be closer to trying to find that defining historical moment that answers all the questions on Shakespeare. But you are more familiar with his world, understanding of his achievements and gently reminded of the excesses that some academics will go to just to prove a mad theory.

Version read - Harper Perennial paperback

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