Monday, March 19, 2012

The Enigmatic Bard: Bill Bryson's Shakespeare

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make time in my reading schedule for some author biographies; Shakespeare: The World as Stage by humourist Bill Bryson was a fantastic place to start. What impressed me most in this book on Shakespeare is how little we actually know about Shakespeare. He remains an enigmatic and mysterious figure. Most likely he always will. Renaissance documentation being what it was -- and in the distant past -- the remaining accounts of him are few and far between. Hold your horses, authorship conspiracy theorists, we don't know much about any playwright from that era. In fact, Bryson informs us that scrupulous research has yielded more insight into The Bard than the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean personas such as Thomas Dekker, Inigo Jones and even Ben Jonson. 

To make up for this lack of biographical detail, Bryson contextualizes this work of non-fiction with an amusing yet educational portrait of life in Renaissance England, particularly that burgeoning and putrid metropolis London. If we can't confirm what precisely Shakespeare was doing, we can at least make conjectures about what his day-to-day life as an urban player must have been like.

And what a life it was! Bryson provides enough detail about the period to satisfy my ardent curiosity. I loved learning about the strict codes of Renaissance dress. Rain apparently caused mass panic; people rain for cover to protect the delicate dyes of their clothing. Early Modern England conveyed an indifference for spelling and grammar -- nobody could even be bothered to adhere to consistency in signing their own name, Shakespeare included. None of Shakespeare's signatures on record conform to the spelling that has universally been assigned to him. The growing metropolis was plague-ridden and filthy. Londoners paid a great price for urban life, as life expectancy was short. Bryson notes that making it to one's early thirties was 'a reasonable age for a dying Londoner.' What a fascinating time period!

At approximately 200 pages, this biography is by no means exhaustive. Those seeking a more scholarly approach to Shakespeare should look elsewhere. Nevertheless, I found Bryson's contribution to our cumulative knowledge on The Bard to be adequately educational. For someone like me who knows little about the period in question, Shakespeare: The World as Stage was precisely the introduction to Renaissance biography I needed. The dry humour for which Bill Bryson is noted was apparent throughout, infusing each chapter of the biography. Being a novel addict, I was worried that I would struggle through this text. I needn't have. Bryson captivated my attention from the opening pages. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the subject was contagious, causing me to spew Renaissance 'fun facts' to my family without the slightest provocation. And now I'll adding a few of these fascinating tidbits to this blog post. I just can't help myself. If you're the least big interested, please read on...

* Those attending Early Modern theatre could expect a fair degree of gore. Animal organs were used as props in violent death scenes. Swords were dipped in sheep's blood for a touch of violent realism during staged fights. Additional blood and fake limbs were strewn around to set the stage.

* The history of Shakespeare scholarship is almost as intriguing as the plays themselves. Charles and Hulda Wallace took it upon themselves to sift through Early Modern records in the hopes of locating information about Shakespeare -- to considerable success. Unfortunately, Charles became rather paranoid as a result of his obsession and even 'believed that the British government was secretly employing large numbers of students to uncover Shakespeare records before he could get to them' (p. 15). Other critics have suggested, due to two minor allusions to lameness in the Sonnets, that Shakespeare must have been crippled. Naturally.

* The violence on the stage could, and did, extend to the audience. Bryson reports that real bullets were used in theatrical fights -- why, neither Bryson nor I can imagine -- and we know that a cannon was responsible for the fire that resulted in The Globe's destruction. Theatre-goers could even procure seating on the stage at some venues for an additional fee. 'The practice was lucrative; but it contained an obvious risk of distraction. Stephen Greenblatt relates an occasion in which a nobleman who had secured a perch on the stage spied a friend entering across the way and strode through the performance to greet him. When rebuked by an actor for his thoughtlessness, the nobleman slapped the impertinent fellow and the audience rioted' (p. 139). Can you imagine if fights broke out at the cinema today? Saying that, I can imagine Team Edward and Team Jacob fans fighting to the death at a Twilight showing...

* James I was, according to Bryson, an uncouth gentleman. He was known back then (which is saying something) for his bad hygiene. Leftovers from his meals stained his clothing, and he frequently indulged in the bad habit of playing with his codpiece in public. How charming.

* 1592 marks the first recorded mention of Shakespeare as a playwright, in a decidedly unflattering pamphlet called Greene's Groat's-Worth of Wit. Bryson is not a fan of its author, Robert Greene, calling him 'a wastrel and cad' (p. 83). Indeed, he manages to sneak in an insult or two aimed at Greene who, in turn, insulted Shakespeare in his pamphlet. One example of such a dig: 'Only two copies of Greene's Goat's-Worth survive, and there would not be much call for either were it not for a single arresting sentence [referring to Shakespeare] tucked into ones of its many discursive passages' (p. 84). Needless to say, Bryson's shrewd commentary delighted to me.

* I had no idea that spelling and grammar was so universally inconsistent in Early Modern England. This information astounded me! More than eighty spelling of William Shakespeare's name, for instance, have been recorded. I'll turn over to Bryson for further elucidation: 'People could be extraordinarily casual even with their own names. Christopher Marlowe signed himself "Cristofer Marley" in his one surviving autograph and was registered at Cambridge as "Christopher Marlen." Elsewhere he is recorded as "Morley" and "Merlin," among others. In like manner the impresario Philip Henslowe indifferently wrote "Henslowe" or "Hensley" when signing his name, and others made it Hinshley, Hinchlow, Hensclow, Hynchlowes, Inclow, Hinchloe, and a half dozen more' (p. 111).

I'll put an end to these fun facts now, before I bore anybody to tears -- if anyone has even managed to make it this far! In short, Shakespeare: The World as Stage was a pure delight. It makes me eager to read more Renaissance authors (I've got Marlow and Jonson on my list), as well as further my Shakespeare education. Have you read any Shakespeare biographies? Did you enjoy them? I'd love to hear!


Jillian said...

I've read this one and a guide to Shakespeare's works by Michael Cummings, which isn't exactly a biography, but is FASCINATING and does cover several aspects of Shakespeare's life. (Which are already covered in Bryson's book.) The bulk of it is about Shakespeare's plays and poems.

Diana said...

I'll have to check out the Cummings book, it sounds so interesting! I also want to read Greenblatt's Will in the World since that seems to be the 'fashionable' biography in criticism right now. I also have a very brief bio by Germaine Greer that's on my Classics Club list, and I'm curious to see how a feminist perspective compares with other biographies. I'm now fascinated by this time period. :)

Caro said...

Great post! I read this biography and absolutely LOVED IT. Bryson's style is just so captivating, and the topic itself is intriguing and mysterious. Like you, I also found the information on Elizabethan and Jacobin England fascinating and told a few to my family over dinner (though eventually they did ask me to shut up ;D).

Diana said...

Bill Bryson really made everything seem so funny and intriguing -- in a subtle, not-in-your-face kind of way.

I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who plagued their family with Renaissance fun facts! :)