You’ll be delighted to know that my failsafe computer tactic – ignore the problem and it will go away – has once more worked its magic. My ‘b’ key, though needing a tiny bit more persuasion than the others, is almost as good as new. All through the magic of ignoring the issue. Trust me, if restarting the computer doesn’t fix the issue, then try ignoring it. Like all other dangerous animals, it secretly craves attention, and will right itself if is starved of it.
So why is this particularly pertinent today? Well, I realised I hadn’t blogged properly about Shakespeare by Bill Bryson. That’s a lot of ‘b’s, especially when you remember that William is known fondly as Billybob by myself and others who took the Shakespeare paper alongside me in finals.
The Carbon Copy bought me Shakespeare for my birthday, along with the wonderful and moving film Amazing Grace and, possibly my favourite, a little picture of Eeyore receiving his birthday balloon. My previous experience with Bill Bryson is positive – loved Mother Tongue, which I read about five years ago. Fascinating stuff on the evolution of the English language, and incredibly readable.
‘Readable’ always sounds a bit like damning with faint praise – cereal packets deserve the same honour – but it really isn’t. Take it from one who had to read a lot of literary criticism, readability (is that a word?) is a must. Shakespeare follows suit – Bryson has obviously done a great deal of arduous and scholarly research, and the resulting book manages to be both deeply informative and incredibly amusing. Tricky combination.
So why do we need another book about Shakespeare? Bryson is honest enough to tell us how many thousands are on offer. Can’t remember the exact amount, but enough to make sure I could comfortably be reading a book about Shakespare every week for the rest of my life – not mentioning the rate at which they’re still being published. What sets this book apart is that Bryson’s character and authorship is expressed through style and wit, not groundless speculation or wide context. Shakespeare is only about 200 pages long, but it is an essential and reliable tome. Everything we know about Shakespeare is in here. A few theories and possibilities are mentioned, but they are shown to be just that, and not argued as certain. The funniest chapter is the final one, on Anti-Stratford theorists i.e. those who, for some reason or other, refuse to believe Billybob wrote his plays. Littered with such scathing lines as “an excellent theory, if it weren’t for the complete lack of evidence to support it,” and “X demonstrated amazing foresight in, seeing as he died before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written, secreting enough manuscripts that they could be gradually released, and correctly estimating the time period between his own and Shakespeare’s death”. I paraphrase, but you get the gist – very funny.
For the rest of the book – the first chapters sketch out Shakespeare’s life; where he was, different instances at which he is mention in some document or other. A nice touch is that Bryson often details the person who discovered a new fact about Billybob, often through laborious and painstaking reading of many manuscripts and documents. Credit where due, is Bryson’s motto. Subsequent chapters talk about the plays and the sonnets – not lit crit, but where they were performed or when they were first published. All very interesting, and if it sounds dry (and to me it doesn’t!) then Bryson’s wit and charm will fascinate you.
There have been thousands of books written about Billybob, and I daresay there will be thousands more, but for the facts in an engaging and funny way, this can’t be bettered.