Bill on the other Bill

billbrysonShakespeare, by Bill Bryson. Published by HarperCollins. Hardback. $39.99.

In the wake of Bill Clinton’s escapades, I had thought his greatest offense was smoking (a cigar, you filthy reader) in the Oval Office. I was 13 and the source of my information was subtle comedy sketch shows and sly references in pop culture. As a result of such roundabout comprehension, I only found out last year the actual events surrounding the joke. Now, it’s my own years-long misconception I find funny and not the actual material used for a cheap laugh.

This, I realize, is a terrible way of introducing Bill Bryson or the subject and title of his latest book, Shakespeare. But it does emphasize the contorting effect of words and ideas we overuse so much as to take them for granted until they become almost meaningless.

William Shakespeare the historical figure and William Shakespeare the man have long since departed ways and as Bryson suggests, were never exactly the same, anyway. It’s been the work, sometimes obsession, of academics for more than 300 years to wed the two in the most obscene sort of marriage. More has been written about who Shakespeare was and what he really meant than what he actually said.

Shakespeare then is less about the historical figure or the man but Shakespeare the lab rat. It’s a narrative of all the pokes, prods and terrible experiments the author of Hamlet has endured since his First Folio first appeared seven years after his death, compiled by his close friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell.

In a terse 195 pages, Bryson explains exactly what we know about Shakespeare (almost nothing) and what we don’t know (nearly everything). Bryson explains how experts have managed to track Shakespeare the man, intermittently, through court documents, legal disputes and the primitive recordings still intact and he lays out clearly why we know the very little of what we know about the writer, such as the writing style of his “A’s”. It all provides more interesting glances at Shakespeare’s England and its thespian scene than the man himself.

For anyone with a vague interest in Shakespeare, the odd facts in Shakespeare are nothing new. Yes, Shakespeare “coined” 2051 words still used in the English language. Yes, the Great Bard had a wife seven years his senior, and yes, he did borrow heavily – in several cases plagiarized – other material. His material was also not was well informed as his peer, like Ben Jonson, and one reason his work has stood the test of time is more to do with chance than fate.

Bryson’s meta-book on Shakespeare is worth praise for studying the study of Shakespeare and pointing out that we really know nothing about his upbringing, his sexuality or his penchant for human milk when he wrote his plays. He’s clear about what we know and what we don’t.

The question of who this great writer was has overshadowed why he was a great writer, and it’s refreshing to have someone neatly compile 300 years of research into an easy-to-read guide. Bryson reminds us of the why: “Shakespeare’s genius was not really to do with facts, but with ambition, intrigue, love suffering – things that aren’t taught in school.”

Shakespeare stands the test of time because he didn’t die at birth and because his work and words search the dark bed of the human psyche like a literary Jacque Cousteau. Even with his plagiarized work, it was the talent of the individual, as Bryson notes, to “take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often greatness.”

Without Shakespeare, the King Lear story would have not only been lost, but worse, had a happy ending.

My interest in this book had less to do with Shakespeare and more to do with Bill Bryson. With an America’s sense of adventure and a British sense of humour and appreciation for irony, Bryson is one of the most intelligent, enjoyable and accessible writers one could hope for. Besides his history of American English Bryson also has a collection of insightful books about American and Australia. None of that cleverness is found in Shakespeare, which is incredibly dry in its presentation. The few stabs Bryson does take at humour almost always have to do with someone’s surname and they fall flat the first time. Gone is Bryson’s clever, witty eye.

There are several ways to consider this book. As a Shakespeare reader, it’s an uninspired but necessary reminder he is important for his contributions to literature and the English language. As a book written by Bill Bryson, it is not worth the $40 price tag and hardly worth picking up for a dollar at the op shop in a few years.

More than anything, it’s good for a literary party-trick at the next social dinner, like retelling your best cigar joke.

–  Wanganui Chronicle, October 2007

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