Years ago when I worked at History Television, I wrote a series of articles about Shakespeare. For a few weeks, I was obsessed by the Shakespeare question and read a pile of books both for and against the Bard's "real" identity. I've seen Shakespeare in Love about a million times and even wrote an article for the now-defunct Chicklit.com (I wish I had a copy of it to share; it was a fun article to write) about the differences between the writer's life and how he was portrayed in the film, tying everything back into the research that I did for my job at the time. Needless to say, I think I'm more obsessed with the idea of all the controversy around Shakespeare's identity than I am by the man's work. Is that a bad thing? And let me just say for the record that I believe, as does Bill Bryson, that Shakespeare was the author of his work, not Francis Bacon or any number of other writers put forth in the years since his death and ultimate canonization.
Part of the Eminent Lives series, Bill Bryson's excellent Shakespeare: The World as Stage contextualizes the little known facts of the Bard's life into a compact and utterly readable package. As Bryson continually reminds us, there are very few known facts of Shakespeare's life: the date of his baptism, his marriage, the number of children he had, how many signatures exist (6), his will, etc. The rest is conjecture, scholars over the years uncovering new evidence, failing to prove their theories, and wishful thinking. What Bryson does so ingeniously is fill in his own spaces with interesting bits of history from the time period, padding Shakespeare's life with surrounding information, giving the reader a spirit of the age rather than trying to pull a biography from thin air. He addresses the Shakespeare question toward the end of the book, and I enjoyed reading about the interesting characters who contributed to seemingly never-ending debate.
I have to admit that I found the chapter about the plays themselves a little dry, but then he grabbed me again by making the point that part of Shakespeare's lasting impression on literature goes so far beyond the plays. So much of the language we use today, so many expressions that hadn't been used before are attributed to him, parts of our speech that we take so for granted that we barely give a thought to the fact that he wrote "be cruel to be kind." The book is full of information that could give anyone an edge should they end up on Jeopardy faced with a Shakespeare category, but it also has a grand sense of humour and a calm approach to sifting through what must have been miles upon miles of scholarship. By the nature of the lack of information about Shakespeare's life, it must have been hard to write a biography about him, but I think that Bryson's done a smashing job of it: a little Tom Stoppard, a little The Professor and the Madman, and a lot of what Bryson does so very well, write history so that it's engaging, interesting and utterly compelling.