Friday, June 06, 2008

Bill Bryson's Shakespeare

The pudding has not been stirred for a number of weeks and I would beg all two or so of my committed readers to cut me a bit of slack. Hopefully we will return to a bit more frequent posting in the future.

Bill Bryson, native born Iowan and Anglophile, is best know for his travel books like Notes From a Small Country (England), A Sunburned Country (Australia), or his musings on language (The Mother Tongue). His latest effort looks at the life and times of the world’s most famous playwright and is titled simply Shakespeare. It’s a slim, breezy read that covers most of the bases in clear non-scholarly prose. For frosting there’s a nice layer of genial humor that often pokes fun at some of the literary excesses offered in other Bardic biographies. Overall this entertaining book might be an ideal introduction for the neophyte or the high school student who gets a case of the iambic pentameter blues whenever the name of Shakespeare is mentioned.

While providing a readable introduction to Shakespeare’s life for an unspecialized audience, Bryson's book also offers some tidbits to the more experienced reader. He makes an apt observation when he notes that only 230 complete plays survive from Shakespeare's day and an astounding fifteen per cent of them are found only in the justly famous First Folio. He adds delightful sensory information when he describes the odorific industries that were centered in the Southwark area in the early 17th century. Going to the Globe was a lot of things, but, according to Bryson, it was always smelly. An item that was new to me was the story of how the American Showman P.T. Barnum influenced the turning of Shakespeare's Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon into a National Shrine. It seems that in the early 1840's Barnum had a plan to dismantle and ship the entire building to the USA, put it on wheels, and tour it around the country. This shook up the English public so much that it galvanized a plan to purchase and save the site for the British nation. Overall this is a book that will appeal to both the beginner and the scholar.

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