While I haven't read a lot of serious scholarship about Shakespeare, my fascination with him has always been a little more than casual since first discovering his plays. In high school, I was part of a group of students, led by one fantastic English teacher, called the "Shakespeare Seven." We met at lunch and read King Lear, then the next year we read The Merchant of Venice on our own time outside of school. So when I found out that Bill Bryson, whose A Short History of Nearly Everything blew me away, had written a book about Shakespeare's life, there was really no question. I would read it.
Bryson brings his clear style to Shakespeare's life, although this book is drier than A Short History. This may be a result of the narrower subject matter—and as Bryson points out, we know much less about Shakespeare's life than most scholars are content to admit. Part of the allure of Shakespeare is as a cautionary tale for literary historians and critics, and a reminder to readers to always read with a critical eye—information is not credible just because an author insists it is so.
When it comes to what we do know about Shakespeare, it's fascinating to learn how we know it. Bryson takes us into the National Archive, the Folgers Shakespeare Library, and many other institutions, showing us exactly how we discovered Shakespeare's whereabouts and activities at certain points in his life. The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries weren't known for their fastidious record-keeping, but the sheepskin they used for records is durable enough that what records they made have mostly survived, thankfully. Unfortunately, searching through box upon box of sheepskins filled with nearly-illegible Elizabethan handwriting is a daunting task.
Much about Shakespeare's life, or supposed life, is daunting, and so many scholars—and non-scholars—have tried to identify alternative authors for the works we attribute to the Bard. I'm firmly Stratfordian in my views, but it's always an interesting academic discussion. Bryson is outright dismissive of any question of authorship, going through some of the more popular alternative authors and explaining why they couldn't possibly have written Shakespeare's plays. For those for whom the authorship question is of great interest, this book won't satisfy.
There's more on offer here than just Shakespearean scholarship though. Bryson gives us a glimpse into the zeitgeist of Elizabethan/Jacobean England. It's easy to telegraph the details of Shakespeare's life while robbing them of context. Without Bryson's book, for instance, I wouldn't know that "the second-best bed was often the marital bed—the first being reserved for important visitors—and therefore replete with tender associations." This puts the oft-tantalizing anecdote that Shakespeare gave his wife his second-best bed, and not his first, into a slightly different context. Granted, Bryson warns us against drawing conclusions that amount to speculation—the truth is, we don't know what Shakespeare's state of mind was when he composed his will or his feelings toward his wife. Still, without Bryson's attention to detail, this biography would have been a very different book. He's careful to explain when a term or action would have a different significance in the sixteenth century than it does today, a distinction that's the difference between reading a Shakespeare play and actually comprehending* at least parts of it.
For the serious budding Shakespeare scholar, I'm afraid that this book is too brief an introduction to the Bard—but then, it's meant to be. For fans of Bill Bryson, or indeed anyone looking for a brief biography of Shakespeare, this book provides a sketch of sixteenth century life with the myth and speculation stripped away. Neither adventurous nor overly-didactic, Shakespeare hits just the right note for a brief biography of the Bard.