Santa, habited no doubt in Elizabethan garb, managed to stuff his way down the (nonexistent) chimney this Christmas to deposit two worthwhile reads in my stocking. The first, Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The Illustrated Edition (HarperPress, 2009) provides an entertaining and informative overview of Shakespeare’s life and subsequent surrounding scholarship. The second (reviewed in Part II of this article), Judi Dench’s And Furthermore (Weidenfeld & Nixon, 2010) is a gossipy account of the actress’s career, full of anecdotes and mostly fond remembrances, dwelling satisfyingly on several of her major Shakespearean performances. Weighing it at around 250 pages each, the books, both with large type, generous spacing, and copious illustrations (Shakespeare: The Illustrated Edition is just that; And Furthermore contains several photographs from Dench’s career) make for quick but enjoyable reading, curled up with a cup of tea in front of the (well, again, nonexistent) fireplace.
Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The Illustrated Edition, an expanded issue of his previous Shakespeare: The World as Stage, incorporates recent developments in Shakespearean scholarship, including the controversy over the Cobbe portrait and the rediscovery of the stolen Durham University First Folio. Bryson breaks up his text into nine chapters, covering issues in Shakespeare’s life, from birth to death and legacy. Bryson is in an awkward position, writing for a wider mass market on a subject which in and of itself sustains a substantial number of English-department academics. His easy and witty, if occasionally barbed style comes at the expense of being able to fully hash out what are, indeed, incredibly complex issues. His reliance on certain scholars, Stanley Wells chief among them, tends to present one, or a small number, of facets in this most faceted of inquiries; nevertheless, Bryson comes across as genuinely committed to a “fair and balanced” approach.
The illustrated edition is image-heavy, providing helpful portraits of key figures, details of maps and woodcuts, and reproductions of key documents related to the life of Shakespeare (e.g. a page from his will). Though, not every page manages to “suit the word to the [image]” as at p. 62 (British edition) showing the Anne Hathaway-Shakespeare marriage bond. Bryson records the spelling on the bond as “Shagspere”—which would be hilarious indeed, but the image clearly reads “Shaxpere.” Frustrating, however, are longer quotations from older sources, which, in presumably an attempt at “ye olde worlde” style, are rendered in a cursive hand neither historically accurate nor terribly legible. One more grievance: Bryson quotes from an obscure Cambridge university drama entitled The Return from Parnassus (part I). On the surface, the quotation (“O sweet Mr Shakespeare! I’ll have his picture in my study at the court”) would appear to support Bryson’s conclusion: “suggesting that Shakespeare was by then a kind of literary pin-up.” But what kind of pin-up? In Return, Gullio, who speaks the Shakespeare-related line, is harshly satirized for his taste in writers. The Return quotation appears in the chapter “Years of Fame, 1596-1603” but perhaps a more complex portrait of Shakespeare’s “fame” during these years would be appropriate.
If nothing else, Bryson’s book is well grounded and striking in its humility: we really do not know much about the life of William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. Bryson hews closely to his uncertainty, relying on conditional sentence structures. However, he also devotes the final chapter to deconstructing the “authorship question” by taking to task Baconians, Oxfordians and the like for misrepresenting Shakespeare’s thin physical historical record as a purposed cover-up conspiracy. It is a bold chapter, and at once reflective of the book as a whole: Bryson biting off a bit more than he can chew, but managing to do so with wit and humor.
At £20 (listed in the US at $29.99), Shakespeare: The Illustrated Edition is a bit steep, though, at least in the UK edition, the book comes bundled with—happy surprise—a CD of Sir John Gielgud reading Shakespeare's Sonnets.