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February 14, 2009


The World as Stage
Bill Bryson – ISBN – 9780061673696

Another book on Shakespeare was unnecessary, but the Eminent Lives series invited Bryson to do one for them. It’s great they asked. He’s created a succinct, humorous literary adventure for those who are “short on time.” Like his subject, he’s is a master wordsmith.

Throughout the book he reminds that astonishingly little is actually known about Shakespeare, considering that he is so famous, yet he then expounds on that little bit in his customary, delightful way. As usual he includes related but obscure history of the times which further enlivens the book.

Who knew that then contemporary St. Paul’s cathedral was an immense square covering 12 acres, including a cemetery and a market place. The latter included every conceivable type of merchant and craftsman. Its dry, covered space housed still more, not to mention providing a place of repose for the local drunks. Pedestrians traversed it in inclement weather, not rarely to protect their piccadill (the starched, ribbon like collar so often seen in portraits and the name source for the legendary Piccadilly Circus.)

Diets of the day, for people able to afford them, were as varied and as complex as they are today. Beer was drunk in copious amounts throughout the day, even by Puritans; a gallon per day being the traditional ration of monks. Even then English Ale was an acquired taste, he notes.

The history of important architectural features of London, including its theatres (the Rose, the Globe, and the Blackfriar amongst them) is reviewed, interestingly and briefly.

But I digress. The golden age of theatre “lasted only the length of a good human lifetime;” and even then was interrupted by occasional plague epidemics. Actors were required to memorize as many as fifteen thousand lines in a season--the equivalent to a 200 page book! Since groups included no more than a dozen actors, they played many roles. Though some characters had few or no lines, actors still had to memorize stage placement and cues for these parts in addition to their own primary roles. Shakespeare, the genius, was clearly a very busy man, since he acted, directed, scripted, and managed, in addition to being a theatre owner.

As to themes and plots, all writers “borrowed” from many sources, including contemporaries. No one objected, which probably accounts for the seeming breadth of Shakespeare’s knowledge. He, more than historian or polymath, was an incredibly gifted writer, who could elaborate upon history, or rework existing plays written by others into forms which were better received. He sometimes “lifted” whole paragraphs or scenes from others, as did they, from him. Occasionally he made huge errors which were generally overlooked. For example, “In The Taming of the Shrew, he put a sail maker in Bergamo . . . the most landlocked city in the whole of Italy.” Only a few of his works were truly original, and most of those were comedies.

He was a master phrasemaker who introduced hundreds of new phrases and words. Many are still in common use, amongst them, one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, salad days, tower of strength, foregone conclusion, and blinking idiot. In The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, fully one-tenth of the notations are Shakespeare’s creations!

In his time most important documents and text works were written in Latin. Curiously, the first textbook of the English language was written in Latin! Shakespeare’s birth was recorded in Latin, his death in English. It is no small tribute to the man that in his lifetime the official language of “cultured” England changed from Latin to English, and he was amongst the architects of that change.

In closing Bryson elaborates in detail the errors of “the Anti-Stratfordians.” These were people who strained to prove—based upon little or nothing—that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. The dispute rages even now, though it wasn’t raised until hundreds of years after his death. He defangs and/or dissects these “cases of proof” humorously, as one might expect. Most arguments are based upon, at best, “chains of hopeful suppositions.” Many people have expended—and still do--large portions of their lives trying to prove their point. He observes, amusingly, that amongst these confident anti-Stradfordians were men whose surnames were Looney, Battey and Silliman.

In this regard Bryson opines that “with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare, . . . [there has never been produced] the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so.”

The Earl of Oxford—the current favorite, and unskilled in his own right—would have to have been incredibly gifted “to create, in [his] spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in voices patently not [his] own, in a manner so cunning that [he] fooled virtually everyone during [his] own lifetime and for four hundred years afterward.” How, he asks, would Oxford benefit from writing masterful plays anonymously while attaching his own name to mediocrities? Further, Oxford would have been required to anticipate his own death, “[leaving] a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius;” or would be if true, when some of the plots were based upon historic events which occurred after Oxford’s death . . . e.g., The Tempest.

A delightful read and highly recommended. A similar book, Will in the World, is reviewed elsewhere on this site and is likewise worth a read.

Posted by respeto at February 14, 2009 12:20 PM