Shakespeare biographies are something of a pet peeve of ours, since so few hard facts about the life of William Shakespeare are actually known, and nobody ever turns up anything new. And so many new Shakespeare books come out every year that we don’t even try to keep up. So we nearly missed Shakespeare: The World as Stage, a modest little “biography” of the Bard that Bill Bryson published in 2007.
We really liked this crisply written little book (196 pages and wide margins), even though a lot of it consists of filler material about 16th-century social and political history that doesn’t have any direct connection either with William Shakespeare or with the plays attributed to him. From pages 62 to 65, for instance, and for no compelling reason related to the life of Shakespeare, Bryson gives us a lively account of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1567. From pages 92 to 94 he bunny-trails into an entertaining biographical sketch of Christopher Marlowe. We don’t blame him; if Shakespeare biographers didn’t do this sort of thing, their books would be awfully short.
And we did learn a few things that we didn’t know, or needed to be corrected on. Take the matter of the “second-best bed” bequeathed to Mrs. Shakespeare in Will Shakespeare’s will. The old conventional wisdom (which we were taught long ago) was that Shakespeare’s failure to leave his wife his best bed was a sign of strained marital relations. The newer conventional wisdom (which we dutifully accepted) was that the “second-best bed” would have been the marital bed and the one that Anne would have wanted most, after all. But the latest wisdom, we learn from Bryson, is that it truly was unusual and inexplicable for a husband to leave his wife their second-best bed.
It is hard to imagine why anyone would write a “biography” of William Shakespeare today without giving at least some attention to whether the man born and buried in Stratford actually wrote the celebrated plays and sonnets, or whether someone else wrote them using the pseudonym “William Shakespeare.” Yet many writers on Shakespeare do ignore the issue. To his credit, Bill Bryson does not gloss over the question of authorship and, in fact, devotes the ninth and final chapter of his book to it.
To our sorrow (for, as noted in an earlier post, we ourselves are of the Oxfordian persuasion), Bryson is a hardened skeptic on the subject. He goes so far as to say that “nearly all the anti-Shakespeare sentiment — actually all of it, every bit — involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact.” Unfortunately, Bryson uses mostly straw-man arguments to support this sweeping statement, making sport of some of the least defensible things said on the subject — assertions that are very far from being pillars of anti-Stratfordian schools of thought.
For example, Bryson mocks a writer for the New York Times for claiming that William Shakespeare (the man from Stratford) never owned a book. As to that, there is no evidence one way or the other (except that that no books are mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will). Personally, we don’t doubt that he was literate; why shouldn’t an actor, theatrical producer, and prominent citizen of Stratford have read and owned books? But what does it matter? The argument against authorship by the Stratford man doesn’t depend in the slightest on the assumption that he didn’t or couldn’t read.
Bryson devotes five pages to making fun of the old theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author. As Bryson well knows, however, hardly anything really thinks Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays anymore. Bryson gives less space, though he pays more serious attention, to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a candidate who does have a great deal of support today (including Emsworth’s). Bryson concedes that de Vere
had certain things in his favor as a candidate: He was clever and had some standing as a poet and playwright (though none of his plays survives [or do they survive? Mr. Bryson, that’s the issue!], and none of his poetry indicates actual greatness — certainly not Shakespearean greatness); he was well traveled and spoke Italian, and he moved in the right circles to understand courtly manners.
But Bryson goes on to attack de Vere’s candidacy with some thoroughly debatable assertions. Bryson argues that de Vere’s colorful personal history (squandering his fortune and episodes of violence and sexual depravity) is irreconcilable with the “gift for compassion, empathy, or generosity of spirit” reflected in the plays and sonnets. Emsworth emphatically disagrees; the plays are more than violent and kinky enough to suggest that the playwright had first-hand experience with such matters during an irresponsible youth.
Bryson also claims, as if it were an unanswerable point, that de Vere couldn’t have written a number of the “later” Shakespeare plays because he died in 1604. In fact, as Bryson also knows very well, there’s no evidence as to when any Shakespeare play was actually written or even first performed.
In fairness, this book was intended to be a popular biography, not a work of scholarship, and the question of who wrote the plays and sonnets wasn’t Bryson’s main focus at all. Still, on the issue of authorship, we were unmoved either by Bryson’s mockery or by his reasoning.