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The eminent Elizabethan

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M.S. NAGARAJAN

Bryson delves into the unknown recesses of Shakespeare’s life and brings to light mysterious areas.

Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bill Bryson, HarperCollins, 2007,

Rs. 325

We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still, Out-topping knowledge.

Matthew Arnold

As a rule, academics are obsessed with the life and works of Shakespeare, the presiding genius of the English language. How else are we to account for the sudden spurt in biographical scholarship on the bard-of-Avon in recent times? Quite a few of these are made of conjectures, intelligent guesses, fuzzy observations, speculations, hints and random, unproven theories. Bill Bryson’s critical and witty book Shakespeare belongs to Penguin’s “Eminent Lives” series, the aim of which is to present concise biographies on canonical figures to a broad-spectrum of readers. Pretty much in the manner of Lytton Strachey, the father of new biography, Bryson carefully delves into the unknown recesses in the life of Shakespeare and brings to light mysterious areas we have never heard of. For example, in his will, Shakespeare left his wife only his second-best bed; yet there is hardly anyone other than Shakespeare who wrote more attractively about love and the meeting of kindred souls! One is not even sure how to spell his name, for, in the surviving signatures, his name is not spelt the same way twice. There are more than 80 different spellings of Shakespeare so far recorded. The Oxford English Dictionary does not endorse the spelling we use. It prefers Shakespere. It is said that there are 10 million documents in the National archives relating to his life and deeds. A task that can keep scores of excited researchers busy for many generations!

Myths dispelled

Bryson dispels such commonly held myths as Shakespeare knowing “small Latin and little Greek,” or his being caught poaching deer in a nearby estate. Bryson speculates on the whereabouts of Shakespeare during 1564-85, which he calls “the lost years”, trying to figure out the perennial mystery of how he could be so successful in such an aggressively hostile atmosphere of the cut-throat competition of Elizabethan theatre. What an irony that though Shakespeare’s most well-known works — including three of the great tragedies — were written during the reign of King James, he is not classified as a Jacobean dramatist. Shakespeare is, in the words of Bryson, “English literary history’s sublimest gay poet”, since the person that the sonnets praise is not a woman but a man.

The first and the earliest biography of Shakespeare came out a century after his death, by which time all details of his life must have gone out of public memory.

An estimated 5,000 books and articles suggest that the works of Shakespeare might have been written by a celebrity other than William Shakespeare. The final chapter deals with the claimants for the authorship of the works which bear the name of Shakespeare.

True genius

For nearly 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, there was no doubt about his authorship. Even Mark Twain and Henry James supported the view that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare’s works. Some others believed that it was the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere or Christopher Marlowe who wrote the plays. Then there was the view that the authorship must have been a syndicate consisting of Sir Philip Sidney, Walter Raleigh, Bacon, the Countess of Pembroke and a number of university wits. There were no fewer than 50 candidates who vied for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Bryson concludes, “When we reflect upon the works of William Shakespeare, it is of course an amazement to consider that one man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling, ever delighting body of work, but that is of course the hallmark of genius” (p.195).

This brief and informative biography does contain some attention-grabbing details that satisfy our intellectual curiosity. In Elizabethan times, a box used to be kept in the office for the theatre goers to drop in their admission fee, a penny, which provided the cheapest seat in the theatre. Whence come the term box-office! Bryson’s Shakespeare is the outcome of serious research. He effectively debunks and explodes myths and theories unsupported by any viable evidence. The book is a welcome addition to Shakespearana!.


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