The problem about writing a biographical book on Shakespeare is that about most of his life there is no concrete record set in a tight chronological order. So you are left to rely on his plays and the times he lived in to track his life.
That’s precisely what Bill Bryson has done. He has brought Shakespeare to his readers through the times he lived in and relied on his plays to trace as much of Shakespeare’s life and world as the work of any writer can possibly reveal about its creator.
Bryson describes the England of Elizabethan times, the rule of the queen, life of commoners in London (where Shakespeare lived while working as a playwright), the personality of the queen, her relationship with the arts and artists (she was a patron of theatres and a tyrant too) and how theatres were run those days.
Bryson has handled his research material so well that you hardly feel there is very little Bryson has to offer about the main subject – Shakespeare. In fact, you will feel a picture of how Shakespeare would have lived his life in 16th century London taking shape behind the details of the times he lived in.
But Bryson has had to depend on this method mostly to describe Shakespeare’s life while he stayed in London because almost nothing is known about the part of life Shakespeare spent in London. Albeit, there are other parts of his life one can track through piecemeal records like court and marriage records and what is documented by earlier biographers.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford and went to school there. His father was a merchant and although the Shakespeares weren’t rich they didn’t lack for anything; however, William’s father fortunes declines towards the end of his life as fell upon hard times with his business failing leading to mounting loans. Shakespeare was a decent student and showed flair for Latin early on.
Shakespeare was an actor and a playwright. His entry into the world of theatres was dramatic. A troop was travelling to Stratford to stage a play and a fight broke out between two actors on the way. One actor died and when the troop reached Stratford, it took Shakespeare as a replacement.
Shakespeare’s plays were not greatly regarded in his days; some of his contemporaries’ plays were regarded more highly than Shakespeare’s. Not much literary value was attached with plays those days and they were considered means of earning a living through quick entertainment. This explains why Shakespeare’s works were not compiled with an intent to preserve them within his lifetime. Long after the death of Shakespeare someone compiled them as First Folio and later subsequent Folios were published by others.
The most formidable challenge Bryson has had to deal with in the book is to arrive at a conclusion on whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else did it under the Bard’s identity for some consideration or other.
The jury is out on this to this day. There are two lobbies, one believes Shakespeare wrote those plays and the other that Shakespeare wasn’t educated and experienced enough to write those plays; that they had to be the work of a person who enjoyed a higher standing in the society (possibly an aristocrat) than Shakespeare did and due to his social position was better connected than Shakespeare; had more access to the workings of royal courts (to have written about court intricacies in the plays) and, of course, was better educated.
Detractors of Shakespeare have found many to have these qualifications who lived at or around the time of Shakespeare and each one of the detractors has his/her own Shakespeare number two and individual theories to establish their claims.
Bryson has used many arguments to debunk the claims and the central one is, although Shakespeare hadn’t received any university education as there was no university in Stratford, he had finished his school education. Overcoming his deficiencies to write those plays would be, in any case, a great achievement, which, however difficult, wouldn’t be impossible, Bryson observes.
And there are country scenes in Shakespeare’s plays whose inspiration could be traced back to his growing years in Stratford. Bryson finishes the book by concluding that it was none other than Shakespeare who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to him – “whoever he was”.
A deficiency of the book is that Bryson didn’t tell much about the division between Latin and English and why exactly even plays enacted with the royalty in audience was played in English while Latin was the court language.