Monday, January 28, 2008

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson has turned from humorous autobiography to nearly straight biography with his latest book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, written for the Eminent Lives Series from Atlas Books. He is not seeking laughs with this book, but his wit is still evident in some of his remarks about Elizabethan and Jacobean culture and about the stupidity of poor scholars trying to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays. In this short book, he gets to the heart of the playwright's story and still entertains.

Bryson still finds room for interesting details.

  • Elizabethans blackened their teeth to suggest they could afford as much sugar as the people with rotten teeth.
  • Eton students were required to smoke for their health and were beaten if they neglected their pipes.
  • Printing of the First Folio was botched. No two copies came out the same. The Folger Library owns about one third of the remaining copies, and most of them are missing pages or entire plays.

I was most fascinated by Bryson's discussion of Shakespeare's impact on the English language, which was evolving away from Middle English during his day. The playwright is credited with the first recorded use of 2035 words, of which over 800 are in common use. Frugal, dwindle, horrid, barefaced, and zany are words he coined, as are many un- words, like unhand, unmask, and untie. Another very interesting discussion was the unauthorized publication of The Sonnets and scholars great efforts to ignore their homosexual references.

Despite Bryson pointing out frequently that we really know very little about the Bard, I feel I know him better. This is a great read for people who enjoy the plays.

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Atlas Books, 2007. ISBN 9780060740221

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