SHAKESPEARE by Bill Bryson (Harper Press, 2007)

Do we really need another book about William Shakespeare? The answer is, of course, a resounding ‘NO’.

In fairness, Bill Bryson is fully cognizant of this fact. He is honest enough to admit that this book contains not so much his own opinions “but is instead about what I learned of William Shakespeare from people who have spent a lifetime studying and thinking about him”.

Bryson makes the accurate observation that the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon is “not so much a historical figure as an academic obsession”.

He is in his element when debunking some of the unsubstantiated claims the so-called ‘experts’ have made in an attempt to uncover the man behind the myth.

One chapter is entitled ‘The Lost Years 1585 – 1592’ although it could be convincingly argued that Shakespeare’s whole life is effectively ‘lost’. Despite the huge amount of time and effort invested in research, we still know practically nothing about how he lived and can only imagine what his views were on topics such as sex, religion and politics from his writings.

One of the few extant documents is an application to marry Anne Hathaway in 1582. However, even here the records are ambiguous since the ledger makes reference of another woman named Anne Whateley. Many have taken this to show that Shakespeare had two prospective brides-to-be on the go. Bryson reports that Anthony Burgess “in a slightly fevered moment, suggested that young Will [….] perhaps fell for a ‘comely’ daughter, sweet as May and shy as a fawn”. This is a prime example of the kind of rampant speculation that even revered scholars are guilty of.

Bryson puts forward a far more convincing argument to the effect that there was , in fact, no other woman, comely or otherwise. Ms Whately is more likely to be simply a clerk’s slip of the quill as there are numerous other examples of transcription errors with even Shakespeare’s name being frequently misspelt. One of these unflatteringly records him as ‘Shagspere’!

Bryson’s point is that anyone attempting to study the life of Shakespeare must, for the most part, rely on pure guesswork. Any concrete facts have to be prefaced by a plethora of ‘mays’ or ‘mights’ and can only be based upon what we know of details about living conditions and customs in England at the time.

This book is fine if you want to learn more about the social history of Elizabethan England and the reign of King James but if you want to know more about who Shakespeare really was then form an orderly queue.