Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

An excellent book that was informative, endearing and entertaining – what one comes to expect from Bill Bryson. This anti-biography describes what we know about the famous playwright and actor, but mainly what we do not, why that is and how difficult it is to be certain of much at all. While I thoroughly enjoyed the entire work, the part that will stay with me the most is Bryson’s careful analysis and refutation of the claims that Shakespeare was not himself, but another (or others); there is simply no evidence to back this claim and good reason to doubt it.
Living in modern times, one gets the (specious?) feeling of accessibility and permanence of information. Consequently, it was interesting to reflect that most of the little knowledge the does exist, and in fact all of the great plays, only exist because someone just happened to write them down. One cannot help but think of what has been lost from all those centuries past. By the way if you happen to listen to the audio version of this book, you get a bonus interview at the end.
Highly recommended.
Interesting tidbits:

  • Of the nearly 1 million words attributed to Shakespeare there are only 14 written by his actual hand. 12 of which are his name, spelled differently every time – and none of which were the current spelling.
  • Regarding Shakespeare’s image, there is very little known. Of three images, two are poorly done and the other good one might not even be him.
  • In Elizabethan England, dark clothes indicated wealth as that much dye cost more.
    Similarly, people would have beer at breakfast, tobacco was thought to be a healing agent (boys were punished if they didn’t have their daily dose) and sugar was very popular.
  • Sugar was so popular that it turned teeth black. But not everyone could afford such quantities, so some would artificially blacken their teeth to appear as if they could. The desire for status seems timeless.
  • Aside from plays, people were entertained by animal baiting – where animals would be forced to fight each other to the death. Apparently, an interesting one was a chimp on a horse being attacked by dogs (maybe American Idol isn’t so bad?).
  • Various scholars have compiled the number of commas, colons, question marks and various phrases used in the Shakespearean cannon.
  • The main four documents that locate William in space and time are those of his baptism, marriage and the birth of his two children.
  • Shakespeare did not actually publish his own works in his lifetime, so we are ver fortunate indeed that a folio was published by John Hemminge and Henry Condell.
  • Before Elizabethan plays, there were no soliloquies and no asides. Further, by putting comedic parts into dramatic stories, they ‘invented’ comic relief.
  • Shakespeare’s vocabulary was not as extensive as often thought, but he did contribute to the language enormously, both in singular words as well as phrases.

Other Shakespeares?
Bryson tells us that there are over 50 candidates who some think were the ‘real’ Shakespeare, the most prominent of which are Bacon and Marlow. The people who pursue this idea are known as “Anti-Stratfordian” and all assume that William was not good enough. Yet, his father was mayor of a prominent town and William did borrow liberally from other works at the time. No one has good evidence to suggest that it was Bacon or others. Some woman, also with the name Bacon (but unrelated), first took to the cause and other big names supported her (Emerson, Carlye).Modern linguistic techniques can analyze your personal style of writing (word frequencies, pairings, imagery and the like) and Shakespeare’s style does not match with Bacon or Marlow or any others. It seems unbelievable that another person could completely alter their own, consistently, over many years. Further, it would have to be a massive conspiracy to have fooled everyone in their own lifetimes and still 400 years later.
I believe that Bryson provided both positive and negative reasons/evidence why Shakespeare was himself and not others, and as such I consider the matter resolved unless startling new evidence is discovered.


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