My Competitors, #1: Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage

There are many books you might be enticed into buying instead of saving up for My Year with Shakespeare. Some are about people who (claim to) have accomplished some daunting task within a year. Others are books about Shakespeare directed toward a general audience. From time to time this blog will feature an entry discussing one of these books. We kick off with Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage.

Bill Bryson has carved out a cozy little niche for himself. He first became known as a writer of cotton-candy travelogues, tasty enough going down, but not actually nourishing. He managed to parlay his voice into a position as such a Cultural Authority for the NPR crowd that he could actually publish a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything with a straight face. Little wonder that when HarperCollins needed someone to write the Shakespeare book for a series called “Eminent Lives,” they turned to Bryson despite his lack of qualifications as a scholar or literary critic.

Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage appeared in 2007 and has been a great success. Several friends, upon learning that I was working on Shakespeare, told me they’d enjoyed it. I’ve read it twice now and I can see why. It’s a painless read that covers quite a range of subjects for a short book, from likenesses of Shakespeare to the Authorship Controversy, translating three dozen secondary works into the trademark breezy Bryson style that carries the reader smoothly along, never challenging him or her. This is the kind of book that thinks it’s important to tell you that “Shakespeare’s works contain 138,198 commas, 26,794 colons, and 15,875 question marks” but not to pose any of the interesting questions about how to live a life that a reading of Shakespeare might provoke. One of Bryson’s previous bestsellers was entitled A Walk in the Woods; here he seems bent on meandering through the Forest of Arden, which takes on a disconcerting resemblance to Lake Wobegon.

If you want nothing more than the high points of Shakespeare’s times and the usual run of speculation about his life but don’t have the time or inclination—oh, let’s come out and say it, you’re too lazy—to read a book like Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, Bryson is your man. If you want to know or be reminded why you should bother, you’d better look elsewhere, for Bryson has nothing whatsoever on the subject. Bryson certainly shows refreshing candor in his admission that “this book was written not so much because the world needs another book about Shakespeare as because this series does,” but even so his complete lack of interest in the work is startling. The most sustained analysis he offers is that Shakespeare “gave the world some of the most sublime and unimprovable hours of pleasure it has ever known,” which is the sort of vapid pronouncement people come up with when they want you to know they’re talking about Something Important even though nobody needs to understand quite why. This comes right before the short chapter called “The Plays,” which is concerned less with the plays than with such matters as the vagaries of Elizabethan spelling but is the only place in the book they actually get discussed at all.

Bryson’s reputation might have led one to expect more than an unnecessary biography in a canned series. But that’s what he’s produced, and he doesn’t answer the need for a book that would lead anybody in the 140-character age to pick up a 400-year-old play.

3 responses to “My Competitors, #1: Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage

  1. Will you also write something about "The complete works of William Shakespeare (abridged)"? Admittedly, it was not only at the origin of one of the most hilarious theatre experiences I ever had, it was also the reason for one of the most boring evenings I ever had (proving that it is often the company, not the text itself that counts where the stage is concerned). Just curious what you think of the play.

  2. Hi and thanks for the question! I am not going to cover parodies, pastiches, and the like in the book. I do plan to use the Beyond the Fringe troupe's "So That's the Way You Like It" in my discussion of the Henry VI plays.I did see the "Complete Works (abridged) when the Reduced Shakespeare Company came through New York some time in the mid-90s. I'd be interested to know which part/aspect of your evening was hilarious and which was boring! I went into the play with high expectations only to have them dashed; I didn't think it was funny at all. After all this time specifics are hard to remember, but I do definitely recall feeling that it was more shtick than Shakespeare. Since anything and everything, not just what'll be in the book, is fair game in this blog, maybe I'll refresh my memory somehow and do a post on (at least some) parodies.

  3. I'm sorry, I didn't make myself clear there. I saw the play twice, years apart. First time was fast-paced, perfect timing, hilarious. Of course a lot of it was slapstick, but I thought it was also very irreverent of "the bard". Of course people could watch "Abridged" without ever having seen a single Shakespeare play, but I thought it helped to know the originals — added to the fun. Best thing was the part where they fast-forwarded through the bloody tragedies! ("Bloody" as in "lots of blood flowing".) We almost peed our pants, it was so funny. When I saw it for the second time, the performers were so bad, I almost fell asleep. No passion, no speed, no timing . . . They thought they were "faithful to the text" but just reciting a text won't do when it comes to comedy! I felt especially bad because I had talked 2 friends into joining me, simply by mentioning the play over and over again through the years . . . So, complete disaster there. (BTW: I never saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company perform the play!)Anyways, I just mentioned it because I was curious! ;o)