‘We all recognise a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like. It is like this with nearly every aspect of his life and character: He is at once the best known and least known of figures…’
I’ve long been interested in Bill Bryson from seeing his book Notes from a Small Island on my Dad’s bookshelf, but I’d never actually read any of his work before picking up this Shakespeare biography for £1 from a charity shop. It was so good I read it in two days.
As an aspiring English teacher, I’d like to think I have a decent working knowledge of the Bard and some of his plays. However, what I’d never considered is how that knowledge had been ascertained when Shakespeare himself died over 400 years ago.
It turns out that there is an astonishing lack of evidence as to what Shakespeare looked like, what kind of person he was and how he spent his life. Nobody is quite sure how many plays he wrote even or how he went from humble beginnings in rural Stratford to being a famous actor and playwright in London. Bryson covers what little information can be comprehensively regarded as fact while also delighting in some of the more outlandish rumours and hearsay that has persisted about Shakespeare, both in his lifetime and beyond. The author is also meticulous in his shading in of context so parts of Shakespeare: The World as a Stage almost feel like history book. For someone with only a slender grasp on history, these details were vital, and I feel I have learnt more about Shakespeare from this 200 page book than from anything else I have read of him so far.
William Shakespeare is a figure who will always be the source of great fascination and while Bill Bryson’s biography certainly wont reveal much to Shakespeare experts, to a relative layman it is essential reading. Funny, wry and never hysterical, the book would appeal to even casual fans of both Bill’s, Shakespeare and Bryson.