Friday, June 20, 2008

Bryson on Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is an intimidating subject to write about. I remember, in high school, struggling to compose a paper on “Hamlet” – everything I wrote seemed trivial in relation to the play. Mostly, I think I was intimidated by the thought of writing about one of the most popular plays by “the greatest writer in the history of the English language.” What could I possibly say about “Hamlet” that hadn’t already been said? Even today, I can’t help wondering if it’s possible to say anything original about Shakespeare. Surely the academics must have picked his bones clean by now. It is perhaps easier, and more effective, to simply point to the texts and be silent… but, of course, that’s not in the nature of most writers.

Hundreds of books and essays testify to the fact that Shakespeare’s life is just as mysterious as his art. With his 2007 book Shakespeare: The World as Stage (part of the “Eminent Lives” series), travel writer and humorist Bill Bryson attempts a casual, non-scholarly re-evaluation of the real man behind the plays. It might seem like a job for a highly specialized scholar, but in fact the casual reader probably knows as much about Shakespeare’s life as most scholars. Bryson can dig up the details as well as any PhD: Shakespeare was born into a relatively affluent family in a religiously-conflicted country (Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant who was remarkably tolerant of Catholicism) and baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. It is reasonable to assume that he was educated at the nearby school where, in the late 1500s, the standard curriculum would have emphasized Latin grammar and the classics. Shakespeare’s religious instruction is a subject of much debate. What we know for certain is that, at age 18, he married an older woman and had three children before moving to London to become a prolific playwright and sometime actor, producing 38 plays and many poems between 1590 and 1613. Despite this prolific body of work, we have no autobiographical writings by Shakespeare and can only speculate about the personal influences on his art.

Bryson, like so many other biographers, is dismayed by the scarcity of details to go on – he refers to his subject as the “literary equivalent of an electron – forever there and not there.” Unable to resign himself to silence, however, the author turns his investigation toward our popular concept of Shakespeare. When I first studied in London in the summer of 2000, I was asked to do the same thing. Educators at the New Globe Theater prepared students for an informal tour of sites that might (or might not) reveal something definitive about the elusive playwright.

We went to the British Library and saw the First Folio – a posthumous collection of Shakespeare’s plays that has provided the most authoritative versions of many of his works, as well as one of only three source images of the playwright… looking especially regal.

We then went to the National Portrait Gallery, which houses a painting of a comparatively bohemian-looking (possibly even, as Bryson suggests, somewhat “fey”) Shakespeare.

We saw more casual representations of the Bard in less reverent surroundings: a pigeon-adorned statue in Leicester Square (modeled after a similar statue in Westminster Abbey) and a bust overlooking a pub on Carnaby Street. Both seemed to suggest that Londoners in the 19th century regarded the playwright as “a man of the people.”

Later, we made our way to Southwark Cathedral on the South Bank, where Shakespeare is enshrined alongside his most famous characters in a stained glass window. In the center of the design stands Prospero, the magician at the center of one of Shakespeare’s final (and, with the possible exception of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” most original) plays. What are we supposed to make of this celebration (apotheosis?) of a pagan character in a strictly religious setting? And what, in turn, are we supposed to make of Shakespeare? Icon of the high arts or man of the people? Christian or pagan? Essentially liberal or conservative? With so few hard facts available, Shakespeare doesn’t seem like a man at all, but rather like a Rorschach test into which we project our own personal beliefs and ideas. So what, one might wonder, is the point of writing another necessarily-biased biography on him?

We ended our tour at the New Globe Theater – a replica of the Elizabethan playhouse where Shakespeare’s works were originally performed. In that space, it is hard not to feel some kind of vital connection to the past – precisely the sort of connection that would prompt one to write a book about Shakespeare. Like many enthusiasts before him, Bryson stands there and imagines “what it must have been like to watch Macbeth without knowing the outcome, to be part of a hushed audience hearing Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time, to witness Shakespeare speaking his own lines.” In this moment, it’s easy to understand why he bothered to write another biography on Shakespeare… He simply couldn’t help himself. He’s genuinely, deeply curious. Just what was it about Shakespeare that allowed him to craft stories that remain so vital? Bryson’s best explanation is that Shakespeare “had a kind of assimilative intelligence, which allowed him to pull together lots of disparate fragments of knowledge.”

That’s as close as we can get to an answer: Shakespeare’s best plays have an x factor, which makes the whole work more than the sum of its parts. No biography or critical study or adaptation (or high school English paper) can provide a more satisfying answer that that. What they can do is spark or renew the reader’s curiosity and redirect us to the texts themselves. And that is always worthwhile.


  1. That quotation about "assimilative intelligence" is right on the money, IMO. "Shakespeare" (be it real person, pseudonym for a rich duke, or simply a name that comprises the work of a few authors combined) had true genius, and it rested in the broadness of his canvases--to adopt phrasing from another art--combined with the specific nuance of his situations. Add to that a total vocabulary that outshines pretty much all other authors in the English language (and yes, there are people who figure out how many different total words a major author has used) and you've got a pretty remarkable man. That said, I'm glad that Bryson doesn't take him TOO seriously. That seems to be the danger these days.

  2. Bryson also makes a convincing argument against all those conspiracy theories about who might have really written Shakespeare's plays... and wonders if people don't like spreading the theories simply in order to humble "the world's greatest writer" and make his plays seem more somehow approachable... Again, I have to say that I'm fine with any discussion that redirects people to the plays.

  3. Another random postscript -- anyone who appreciates Shakespeare, even in the slightest, should check out the Canadian sitcom "Slings & Arrows." The third season is now available on DVD.

  4. Anonymous7/08/2008

    There is also the DVD titled
    'The Reduced Shakespere Company'
    All the plays in 90 mins. of fun
    Been around for several years