Shakespeare: The World as Stage
It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. 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.
Ordinarily, I’m quite content to read a book or a story or a play without knowing all that much about the author—maybe country of origin, era lived. Occasionally, however, I become curious. William Shakespeare has piqued my interest more than usual, simply because we know so little about him and because there are those who even debate his authorship. So I approached Bill Bryson’s brief biography with the idea of learning more about the person, and perhaps his times. However, after completing the book, I find myself completely ambivalent about learning any more about the man. This could be in part because there really wasn’t anything new to me about Shakespeare in the book. Scholars know so little, that pretty much all there is to know I have heard before. The authorship question doesn’t even intrigue me that much anymore as there simply isn’t enough real evidence for any of the positions, and all require assumptions to be made, whether it is the assumption that William Shakespeare did attend grammar school or that the vain Earl of Oxford would be willing not to take credit for his works or that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death.
No, what interests me is the surrounding history, the background. That the work of the Elizabethan playwrights helped bring acceptance to English as a literary language. (The first English grammar was written in Latin!) That the population of England had been shrinking for a century or more. That so many people found a way to attend a play during the day, at a fairly high cost, despite long workdays and low wages. Given the ongoing story of economic instability world-wide over the last few years, I was greatly intrigued to read that at the end of the Elizabethan era, wages were lower than they had been a century prior while food prices had drastically increased. (Sound familiar?) Thanks to our limited factual knowledge about Shakespeare—or just about any other individual of the era not connected with the Royal Court—Bryson’s book was filled with such factual tidbits.
Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616 – Click to enlarge
My favorite chapter, easily, is the third, “The Lost Years, 1585-1592.” Scholars know absolutely nothing about Shakespeare in this time frame, so to pass through it, Bryson discusses the London of the era: the character of the city, the character of its inhabitants, a skimming of the history of these years. I loved it. I was taken back, not just to late 1500s London, but to Florence, Italy in 2003. I was in Florence studying architecture at that time and one of our professors was a local, a history professor who split his time between several American study-abroad programs. The class he taught us, one of my favorites, was a history of the Medieval and Renaissance city—just the time frame Shakespeare’s London fits into. The description of a city crammed inside ancient walls, buildings overhanging narrow streets, divided based on parish, slums springing up outside the city, is all so familiar to me even when localized to London. I spent too many hours looking up the images Bryson references: maps of London, panoramas, sketches of the old London Bridge. It is hardly more than a glance at the era, but was the highlight of the book for me.
This isn’t to say that Shakespeare the man isn’t interesting. He is. It’s just hard to tell if he’s interesting because he actually was interesting or if he’s interesting because we don’t know much about him. I can see that Shakespearean scholarship could be very interesting—can you imagine if a scholar should stumble upon a treasure trove of information about him?—but at this point, my curiosity has been sated. The plays and poems are sufficient. Nay, given his genius, more than enough.