Book Review- Shakespeare By Bill Bryson

I have been given the gift of time, which is nice as it’s not even Christmas yet. Travelling the long slog to work has gifted me the opportunity to get a little reading done on the lengthy journey to a cold building site. It isn’t really a present as such, but more of a silver lining at the cost of a dark cloud of the long commute, a cloud that I cant even see because the commute begins and ends in darkness now it is late autumn. It’s not a great gift, I’d much rather enjoy these hours in bed. It is still a gift however, and I am happier reading a book in the back of a car rather than carrying bricks around in the bitter cold mornings of hilly Shropshire. I can’t bring a proper book to work, that would lead to more stick, more than I already get as a vegetarian liberal who happens to be the boss’s son. I can’t let them find out I am also a nerd. So it’s is the luminous glare of the kindle app that stops me from nodding off back to sleep on the long shuttle between the scaffold clad fields and home, and that brings me to the point of this tangent commenced blog, the books.

               It seems that this week’s backseat book is the perfect one to start with as it involves the English language‘s best advocate, whose work has been enjoyed all around the world, traverses genres and effortlessly evokes laughter, sorrow and wisdom. I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson. He is the greatest travel writer there is and I always take one of his books with me on the road. His popular science books have made the complex theories of physics, biology and geology accessible and understandable, as have his works on language, and all of his works bring stories to life through well researched histories and his humorous wit. He is the perfect author to write the Eminent Lives  biography of another truly eminent writer who is pretty famous, William Shakespeare.

               Bryson is not only the perfect choice to write this book because of how easily he can embed the reader in the Shakespeare’s world of Elizabethan England but also because of how well he can sort out and simplify all there is know about the man widely regarded as the greatest playwright there ever has been. There has been a lot written about the great Shakespeare. A lot of waffle, and a lot of rubbish. A lot of half truths and a lot of lies. Bryson points out that ‘The Library of Congress in Washington contains about seven thousand works on Shakespeare’ and that the ‘Shakespeare Quarterly logs about four thousand serious new works every year.’ The aim of his book is to clarify what we can know for certain about Shakespeare which is why it is wonderfully small, but Bryson compacts it with intriguing facts as well as delightful debunking of all the nonsense surrounding the great poet.

               It is amazing that he managed to write a book at all about Shakespeare when Bryson lays out how little is really known for certain about him. How the three images that all other images of him are taken from may not even look like him. How we only know where he is a handful of times in history. How some people don’t even think he existed. How we know nothing about his relationships or marriage, or even his sexuality as most of his sonnets are about men. He could, after all, be ‘English literary history’s sublimest gay poet.’ as Bill puts it. What we can know for sure Bryson embeds magnificently in the context of the times and lets the reader try and glimpse into the life of the illusive Bard as we journey through the streets and around the theatres of Elizabethan London. Bryson also points out that Shakespeare’s most productive era was under the rule of King James I.

               This book does make clear the genius and the impact of big Will. How he changed the English language and the theatres of London. Shakespeare’s mastery of words (even if he did create a lot of them) is made clear and how the impact still reaches us now. Bryson lays out mind blowing facts such as Shakespeare’s first use of 2035 words, 600 from just Hamlet alone and 314 new words from just putting the prefix ‘un’ infront of others. The author also points out that  ‘If we take the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as our guide, then Shakespeare produced roughly one-tenth of all the most quotable utterances written or spoken in English since its inception’ which is quite good going. In short he did a lot more than just inspire the plot of The Lion King.

To review my review of Bryson’s review of all the Shakespeare work then. It is pretty damn good. What this book is, is a brilliant round up of all there is to know about Shakespeare. A clear assessment of the facts and an expert exposing of the myths that surround him. It is a great introduction for those who want to know more about Shakespeare and an insightful, entertaining book for those who think they already do. I wish I read it whilst I was forced to read Shakespeare at school, just as I wish I read A Brief History of Nearly Everything when I had to do the sciences. I am glad I’ve read it now, even though I probably won’t read any Shakespeare again, I just might watch The Lion King on the next drive to work.

Verdict- Thoroughly recommend to anyone, especially if you’d like to know more about one of the most famous people ever to exist.

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