Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Shakespeare (Bill Bryson)

Most of my reading these days gets done at night, right before I fall asleep, which is translating to a lot of "easy" reading, for lack of a better term: entertaining, nothing with too many details, uncomplicated, nothing really considered too literary. So I surprised myself when I requested a biography of Shakespeare at the library. But it was by Bill Bryson, who I've loved, and who I've loved not so much. I knew I had made the right decision when I read the first sentence of the book:

Before he came into a lot of money in 1839, Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, led a largely uneventful life.

Fiction workshops can be built around first sentences, and this one, although considered nonfiction, is right up there with the best. (Grenville had been the owner of what is now known as the Chandos portrait, which is believed to be of Shakespeare.) Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bryson explains, "was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record. Which is one reason, of course, it's so slender."

There isn't a lot on record of Shakespeare, but this hasn't stopped people from speculating, sometimes wildly, about his life and who exactly he was. Bryson brings us back to Shakespeare's time, tells us what we know, what we might, and what we don't. (He does an excellent job near the end of the book dispelling some of the myths of the Shakespeare conspiracists who believe that someone else wrote the plays, noting that much of the drive behind that movement came from Delia Bacon, an American who believed, quite wrongly, that she was connected to Francis Bacon, and that Francis Bacon was then the real playwright.)

It's definitely a good read and would probably be an excellent audiobook for those of you who appreciate such things.

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