Wry Eye on the Bard

Sorting through the little we know about the best we’ve got


Shakespeare: The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson, Harper Collins, Atlas Books, $19.95

For those who admire Bill Bryson, an Iowa-bred humorist whose home base has alternated between England and New England since 1973 (but who has also enjoyed productive sojourns to Africa, Australia, and other settings), any new publication of his is an event to relish. I’m thus pleased to assure readers who’ve been charmed by his earlier works—Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, and A Short History of Nearly Everything—that they’ll find much to their liking in Shakespeare: The World as Stage.

With disarming candor, Bryson confesses that his latest volume came about “not because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, but because this series does.” The collection to which he refers is Eminent Lives, an ongoing series of brief biographies. The rationale for his installment in it “is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.” The answer, of course, is not much. And that is why our author describes his contribution to a vast body of existing commentary as slender.

In bulk, yes; but certainly not in substance or in wit. As usual, Bryson has done diligent research, consulted leading authorities on every topic he addresses, and rewarded us with a judicious synthesis of his findings.

He begins with the three images that are generally thought to furnish our least unreliable representations of the playwright’s countenance: the “Chandos” painting, so designated in recognition of the ill-fated nobleman who inherited it from his forebears and was eventually forced by bankruptcy to see it auctioned to an earl who donated it to London’s National Portrait Gallery; the Janssen bust in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, which we know to have been above the author’s tomb by 1623, owing to a reference to it in the First Folio; and the Droeshout engraving, which adorns the frontispiece of that indispensable gathering of the poet’s dramatic works.

Bryson rightly notes that there is no definitive link between what may have been the earliest of these items, the anonymous Chandos rendering, and the subject with whom its adherents have long sought to associate it. He goes on to observe that the other two images are at best “indifferent” aesthetically. He cites Mark Twain’s quip that the chancel carving has the “deep, deep, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder.” And he aptly deprecates the Droeshout figure as one in which an oversized head “seems to float off the shoulders, like a balloon.” What he doesn’t mention is that, in surviving copies of the Folio engraving, two stop-press corrections appear in what may have been a semi-competent artisan’s first significant commission. One revision furnishes a much-needed shadow for the ruff. The second adds nothing more than a tiny strand of hair to the poet’s head and a thin crosshatch through the white of one eye, and it can be construed as a clear indication that those who ordered the portrait were anything but pleased with what they received from a man who proved incapable of repairing it to their satisfaction.

In the summary for what functions as a preamble to his narrative, Bryson says: “The paradoxical consequence is that we all recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like. It is like this with nearly every aspect of his life and character. He is at once the best known and least known of figures.”

From here Bryson proceeds to the scant and often contradictory details we have about this enigmatic genius:

  • his handwriting and orthography (the playwright’s “name is never spelled the same way twice in the signatures that survive”);
  • his education (there are good reasons to infer that young William attended the rigorous grammar school of a flourishing market town, but we have no means of proving it);
  • his family life (scholars have sought in vain to determine whether the poet’s father, who held prominent civic offices and seems to have prospered financially before he suffered a perplexing reversal of fortunes, was literate enough to inscribe legal documents with anything more than a generic mark);
  • his marriage (like generations of previous interpreters, Bryson is at a loss to explain a late addition to the author’s will that famously bequeathed the household’s “second-best bed” to a spouse for whom he had long provided commodious living quarters but for whom there are no indisputable tokens of an affectionate relationship);
  • his professional career (Bryson emphasizes the many lacunae in our knowledge of the various phases in Shakespeare’s development, both as lyric poet and as actor, dramatist, and producer of theatrical entertainments).

Bryson’s conclusion, echoing the Heisenbergian indeterminacy that Michael Frayn has dramatized so eloquently in Copenhagen, is that the hero of our story is the “literary equivalent of an electron—forever there and not there.”


But does that mean there’s nothing pertinent to say about a writer for whom we have “a wealth of text but a poverty of context”? Not for Bryson. And one of the pleasures his survey affords is a rich texture of fascinating background information. Enumerating the perils that kept most life­spans short, for instance (among them “treatments” that were “almost as dangerous as the ailments” to which they were applied), he tells us that “it was a literally dreadful age.” This being the case, one might assume that religion proffered a comforting refuge from the era’s manifold anxieties. Perhaps so, if one conformed to the prevailing orthodoxy. But severe penalties—among them ghastly forms of execution—awaited those who challenged officially approved beliefs and practices.

Among the qualities that Bryson commends in Shakespeare is the shrewdness with which he navigated theological and political currents that got the better of many of his contemporaries. If his father remained loyal to Roman Catholicism when it was no longer expedient to do so, and if Shakespeare spent his late adolescence in Lancashire as part of a redoubt for subversive recusants (a theory to which Bryson brings well-founded skepticism), any trace of such influence remains difficult to specify. Shakespeare’s texts seem to many interpreters to be at least equally receptive to Protestant, if not ecumenical or secular, approaches to the spiritual and philosophical queries of early-modern culture. The only believers who come across consistently as unappealing in his comedies are doctrinaire types like the Puritans, a sect Bryson depicts as “so averse to sensual pleasure that they would rather live in a distant wilderness in the New World than embrace tolerance.”

This comment is typical of the wry phrasing that Bryson brings to every page. In another well-turned sentence he informs us that “for a time patrons collected troupes of actors rather in the way that rich people of a later age collected race-horses or yachts.” He notes that when attendees entered playhouses of the day, the money collected from them “was dropped in a box, which was taken to a special room for safekeeping—the box office.” And he conveys an indelible sense of what it must have meant for a novice actor and aspiring dramatist to discover, when he arrived in his nation’s capital city, that “a single theater” in Europe’s largest metropolis “held more people than his hometown.”

Like another prolific author whose minor imperfections he appraises with both sympathy and insight, Bryson occasionally lapses into imprecision. He blames David Garrick, rather than Nahum Tate, for inflicting a ludicrously happy ending on King Lear. And he gives more credit than is due to one of the most celebrated scholars to deploy the incomparable resources of Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library. He says that Charlton Hinman identified the hands of nine typesetters in his exacting scrutiny of the printing and proofreading of the First Folio. In fact Hinman detected five compositorial patterns, but subsequent refinements by successors who’ve drawn upon his pioneering methods have extended the number by at least four.

One of those typesetters, the apprentice Hinman labeled Compositor E, committed an inordinate number of trivial miscues. But whether he was “the worst by far,” as Bryson asserts, depends upon our definition of “worst.” Owing no doubt to his inexperience, Compositor E slavishly sought to reproduce every aspect of the copy from which he was working, with the result that we can be reasonably sure that pages he set provide an unusually faithful record of the spelling, punctuation, and other features of the lost playscripts that bibliographers seek to reconstruct by means of compositor analysis. Far more troubling, therefore, at least from the perspective of a modern editor, was Hinman’s Compositor B, a sophisticated and confident craftsman who set approximately half of the Folio volume and who tended to be comparatively highhanded with his editorial ministrations. How much of the original wording emerges intact from a passage that has been transmitted through B’s fingers is always problematic.

The irony of this situation—that the “best” workman in the shop that preserved the bulk of Shakespeare’s dramatic corpus for posterity was in some ways the worst—is of a piece with the point Bryson reiterates throughout his superb introduction to the poet and his world: that the little we can say for certain about the sweet Swan of Avon “seems always to add to the mystery rather than to lighten it.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

John F. Andrews is the founder and president of the Shakespeare Guild, and has edited the Everyman Shakespeare series and the three-volume William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence.


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