Sunday, July 27, 2008
Of course I'm biased, since I'm a great fan of the Bard, but I found Bill Bryson's book on Shakespeare fascinating. Bryson applies his investigative journalistic instincts to the conundrum of how little we actually know about the most influential writer in the English language. Along the way of plumbing the precious few scraps of real information about the man, Bryson illuminates much about the place and time that Shakespeare lived -- the layout of the growing city of London, the business of the theater, the popularity of poetry, the mechanics of printing, the politics of the court -- all of it related in a style as dryly amusing as it is informative. Underlying all of this is the fascinating detective work of the historian, trying to reconstruct accurate knowledge of Shakespeare's life from the few fragmentary artifacts, and assessing how to fill in the cracks based on our best knowledge of historical context. Much of this interested me especially as a genealogist, where I am often doing similar work, trying to understand a historical life from a few artifacts -- a church record of birth and marriage, a deed, a court record here and a tax record there -- and then trying to get a deeper understanding of the milieu. Bryson does a great job of explaining how little we know, what we can reasonably extrapolate from it, and in many amusing passages, the history of Shakespeare scholarship, and why we think we know what we think we know about him. He sets the tone for the book by beginning with an account of why we think we all know what Shakespeare looks like, and why the well-known image is of surprisingly tenuous reliability. He ends the book with an amusing survey of the unfounded but surprisingly persistent idea that Shakespeare didn't actually write the works attributed to him. I left not only with an enhanced appreciation for this great writer, but also an enhanced appreciation for the historian's job. A most enjoyable and worthwhile history lesson.