14 January 2008

Shakespeare, Bill Bryson

The Good, Bard and the Ugly

Author: Bill Bryson
Publication date: 2007
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 325
Pages: 196

The obvious question that comes to mind for a new biography on Shakespeare is "Why one more?"

After all, this Elizabethan playwright is, without a shred of doubt, the most studied, researched and debated man in the whole of English literature. In fact, Bill Bryson provides some interesting statistics in this regard in this slim, compact book of his.

So admittedly, the author himself understands that writing another book about Shakespeare can easily slip into being an exercise in sheer indulgence. Which is why he spends considerable time building a case on how even though there's a staggering amount of literature in regards to the Bard, most of it is clouded in mystery and confusion. And that begins from the legitimacy of Shakespeare’s spelling itself!

In fact, his surmise is that the more one gets to know about Shakespeare, the more enigmatic he gets. Naturally then, critics and biographers have been tempted ever so often to fill in the gaps using creative conjecture.
Says Bryson, "Even the most careful biographers sometimes take a supposition that Shakespeare was Catholic or happily married or fond of the countryside or kindly disposed towards animals --- and convert it within a page or two to something like a certainty. The urge to switch from subjunctive to indicative is, to paraphrase Alaistair Fowler, always a powerful one. Others have simply surrendered themselves to their imaginations. Forced with a wealth of text but a poverty of context, scholars have focused obsessively on what they can know."

The book briefly looks at Shakespeare's childhood and then goes on to talk about his rise as a playwright in Elizabethan England. Bryson observes how the Bard couldn't have been born at a more fortunate time in history, a period when theatre was gaining popularity like never before. It was just the right time for the prolific Shakespeare to unleash his creative talents.
Bryson, though he keeps the tone of the biography uniformly unsentimental yet vivid, goes into too many period details in these sections. These might be useful to serious students of literature but personally; I found these parts excessively detailed and a bit mundane.

The book, however, throbs back to life in the later sections, particularly a chapter where the author discusses and analyses Shakespeare's works and makes some incisive comments.
There are two important elements that Bryson talks about here. One, he candidly recogonises that Shakespeare can lay no great claims to originality in the themes that he tackled.

Says Bryson, "His success was not, it must be said, without its short cuts. Shakespeare didn't scruple to steal plots, dialogue, names and titles---whatever suited his purpose. To paraphrase G B S, Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else has told them first. But then, this was a charge that could be laid against nearly all writers of the day. What Shakespeare did of course, was take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and very often greatness. His particular genius was to take as engaging notion and make it better yet."

Also Bryson's biography, at least in a cursory sense, looks at Shakespeare's heavy contribution to the English language. "Most modern authors I imagine would be delighted if they contributed even one lexeme to the future of the language. His real gift was as a phrasemaker. "Shakespeare's language," says Stanley Wells has a quality, difficult to define, of memorability that has caused many phrases to enter the common language. Some of his phrases like foregone conclusion, salad days, cold comfort, with bated breath and many others are so repetitiously irresistible that we have debased them into clichés.”

Interestingly, the author also considers the condition of 'neologism' that he believed Shakespeare's writings suffered from.
He says, " Shakespeare maybe the English language's presiding genius, but that isn't to say he was without flaws. A certain messy exuberance marked much of what he did. Sometimes it is just not possible to know quite what he meant."

But out of this churning of words, the language itself evolved and Shakespeare aided it in a big way. Unlike other playwrights who stuck to archaic, old English, Shakespeare was quite ahead of his times.

On the whole, Bryson's book is a quick, elegant read that offers some insightful points about the Bard's life. Not all of it is interesting but certainly a refreshing new release on literature.


Ăbzee said...

Hey! I qualify as a Bard geek, so yes this book(despite having read numerous biographies) would still interest me. More so, because, the more one reads different voices on Shakespeare...the more one learns to estimate the genuis, which in my humble opinion is never truly possible. A case in point would be Shakespeare's sonnets. If you think he's a master playwright, one just has to read his sonnets to see where his heart truly lay.

As for the 'charges' of neologism, I believe I've said enough in our brief chat yesterday.

Im curious, does this book talk about Richard Burbage and if yes, how many pages/chapters are devoted to him?

Am loving this blog, and envying you!

janaki said...


i like your heading for this post !

Sandhya Iyer said...

Thanks Abzee, I don't recollect reading too much about Richard Burbage actually, but will check up again. Some of the pages I was flipping rather quickly.

Thanks a lot Janaki :-)

Tanu said...

"Sometimes it is just not possible to know quite what he meant"..ITA with this particular line.I have been reading his sonnets of late.They fail to impress me and more importantly i find it difficult to understand the content.is there a story?he starts of by praising some fair youth and then it shifts to the lady.there are strong and explicit homosexual basis to the relationship between the speaker poet and the young man, but he is also urging him to get married and procreate(haha sorry it's lame and a complete deviation but it reminds me of that scene from Hulchul where Paresh Rawal says "jaise ke humari family dinosaur ki aakhri piri hai..humare bachche nehi huye to jaise duniya kabhi dinosaur nehi dekh paayegi..hehe..now i see the shakespearean connection..LOL).And is it autobiographical at any level?And Sandy can you tell me how old he was when he wrote these poems? Range of style is impressive though some are clearly designed to show off the poet's skill at the expense of any real sincerity of feeling.

I believe it's unjust on my part to compare his poems to his plays, but over all as a writer I'll remember him more for his dramas.Macbeth, Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Twelfth Night ..some of my favs..and nothing else really comes close.

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