Who was William Shakespeare? What did he wear? Who did he love? Was he lighthearted or gloomy? Who were his favorite writers? What was his family like? Did he have a happy childhood? Was he a good actor? Did he anticipate immortality? Did he spell his name S-H-A-K-E-S-P-E-A-R-E? Was he as stingy as the scant court records show? Why, in his will, did he bequeath his wife his second best bed? Did he even exist?
Despite there being millions of pages of analysis written on the man, and an unending tide of new articles every year, Bill Bryson’s point is that as far as actual facts go, we know next to nothing about the man outside of his written work.
(Though we do know he existed; Bill seems personally offended that anyone would suggest otherwise. )
Bryson takes the collected facts about Shakespeare’s life — which is indeed, not very much — and intersperses them with historical datum of the time, what it was like to live in Elizabethan/Jacobean England, the lives of the monarchs themselves, what we think the theaters looked like, and what living in London was like at the plague-ridden turn of the 17th century. There’s also musings on Shakespeare’s vocabulary, his genius for creating new words and phrases, and his overall impact on the english language. With solemn gravitas, Bill reminds us that Shakespeare was born in latin, but died in english.
Back when I drove a car to work, I used to listen to a whole lot of audiobooks. For the past several years I’ve taken the bus and read with my eyes instead. So audiobooks have become more of a road trip treat. My wife took me to San Diego for my birthday and on the return drive back — SD to SF — this book fit in perfectly time-wise and was a fun juxtaposition to sun-drenched Californian highways and one stop at an extraordinarily crowded In-N-Out Burger. Bill Bryson is a good speaker and narrator and altogether it made for a satisfying experience.
But, but, but, the book does suffer from its premise. Even constructing a short work on so little factual evidence is tough! It’s padded with anecdotes and tangents. I don’t think I learned much new. I feel like, looking back at this from the future, I’m going to have fond memories of the drive and my birthday but not be able to recall a whole lot about the specifics of the book.