Bill Bryson on Shakespeare (and the authorship question)

bill-bryson-on-shakespeareShakespeare 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.


Bill Bryson

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.


Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford

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.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on From the mind of a Lit student…..

  2. Will:

    1. I agree: the Stratford man COULD have written the plays. He would have been an obvious candidate even the plays weren’t traditionally attributed to him, since he was a member of the company that produced them. I just don’t think he did.

    2. I also agree that the evidence isn’t conclusive, probably never will be. But is there ANY period of history more closely examined by historians than England history c. 1570-1615? Maybe Palestinian history c. 3 B.C.- 30 A.D. If the hordes of scholars don’t turn up something conclusive, it won’t be for lack of trying.

    3. Sure, Bacon had access to a great library — but Oxford was also close to scholars like Arthur Golding, translator of Ovid.

    4. Thanks so much for your kind words about the blog. I’d love to have you comment more.

    5. Do you have much opportunity to see Shakespeare on stage?

    6. My new post, coincidentally, talks about about the authorship business some more in connection with Peter Ackroyd’s biography, which you’ve probably read.

    Regards, Emsworth

  3. I’m a dy’d i’ th’ wool Stratfordian, finding no reason why given the life and friends he had; Shakespeare of Stratford could not easily have written the plays attributed to him.

    I’ve looked far further than accepting the biography as it stands and read the doubters arguments. None of which, like my own, is 100% conclusive, due to lack of evidence on all sides.

    Ad hominem attacks occur from the doubters, as they have to negate the evidence and integrity of my candidate, and from the Sratfordians as they have defend their candidate from spurious reasoning.

    I mourn the lack of evidence and sincerely hope one day it will turn up. I’ll keep looking from my side if you keep looking from yours. I think the Oxfordians (my preferred epithet is Orksfordians) are certainly researching the period as well as Orthodox Stratfordians (whom I call Stratfrodians to continue the LOTR analogy. Maybe Baconians are the Dwarves).

    I like the Baconian theory to a small degree obviously for his intellectual genius and prowess. And his dad’s connection to John Dee, who let’s face it had the biggest library in England. Polymath too, as were many more in the Age.

    Especially since Stephen Greenblatt and New Historicism blew the dust off accepted Academy doctrine. And theory afforded us other ways of viewing the same old material, a boon for scholars, a bore for the rest of us. I enjoy the research all sides are turning up; as it opens up more information about the Early Modern Period, specifically and generally.

    To study Shakespeare is to study the intellectual history of the West. Anyone who is anyone in the cultivated world has an opinion on Shakespeare. And now with this electronic revolution everyone can have an opinion. But the majority of opinions are not worth reading or thinking about.

    So let’s agree to disagree, we have the works and the authorship mystery can easily co-exist beside it. My purpose is not to offend but to take up a rhetoical stance.

    I love your blog. It’s clean and efficient and idiosyncratic. Thanks,


  4. “Hardly anyone thinks that Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays anymore” is no argument against Bacon. Take a look at the Bacon Wrote Shakespeare group on facebook to see how it has documentary evidence unlike the weak assumption of the Oxfordian theory that if a piece mirrors Oxford’s life then he must have written that piece. Bacon was celebrated as a genius in his lifetime … Oxford was certainly not.

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