William the Bard: The mythology of the unknown

For a man who dominates so much of Western literature — as well as the waking nightmares of millions of reluctant schoolchildren — William Shakespeare is a complete historical enigma.

Here are all the things we don’t know about him:

  1. How to really spell his name. 15th-16th century spelling was notoriously lax, so Shakespeare might have spelt his name a number of ways, including “Shakspeare”. None of the ways in which we see his name spelt by his own hand include the way we spell his name now.
  2. Which years he wrote his first play, or his last, or most of the ones in between.
  3. Whether his marriage was a happy one or a sad one or just something that happened because his wife — who probably was called Anne Hathaway, although that isn’t a certainty either — was pregnant at the time.
  4. What he looked like.

Bill Bryson’s excellent book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, is a masterfully succinct introduction to the Bard’s life, mainly because we just don’t know much about him. One of the things Bryson does tackle is whether Shakespeare was, in fact, the author of the some of the most brilliant lines, or if the conspiracy theorists are right.

An “odd and frankly unlikely woman named Delia Bacon” apparently first brought up the question of Shakespeare’s scholarship. She was convinced that her estimable namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author, and went to some bizarre trouble to try to prove this. She didn’t try very hard, because she seems to have been guided by her imagination rather than by fact.

As Bryson writes, quoting Jonathan Bate, “virtually ‘no one in Shakespeare’s lifetime or for the first two hundred years after his death expressed the slightest doubt about his authorship'”.

Although I did really enjoy myself reading this book, I could’ve wished for more instances and explanations about what exactly Shakespeare brought to the table in terms of language. Bryson explains the analyses done by others in their study of Shakespeare’s language — like the number of new words and phrases introduced, the specificity of them to Shakespeare’s upbringing as a farmhand — but doesn’t quite get around to talking about how powerful his words are. When I think of Shakespeare I think of someone who is (to put it in the only way I know how) the P. G. Wodehouse of dramatic playwriting, the man who can turn a phrase, spin a pun and move an audience like no other. Bryson seems to take it for granted that we can remember off the top of our head the bits of Hamlet’s soliloquy that we liked.

Apart from that, this book is a superb expenditure of eight dollars, not least because Bryson’s style of writing is so endearing. He treats the subject with a nicely balanced mix of historical seriousness and his trademark humor.

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