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Publisher's Summary

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from academics to eccentrics. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunker-like basement room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air", "foregone conclusion", "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's: the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

©2007 Bill Bryson; (P)2007 HarperCollins Publishers

Critic Reviews

"Bryson is a pleasant and funny guide to a subject at once overexposed and elusive." (Publishers Weekly)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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super light and fun

A Bryson book narrated by Bryson is always a good thing, and this little book doesn't disappoint. Full of insight, humor, and history, he doesn't fail to entertain on the subject of Shakespeare's life.

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  • Joyce
  • Miamisburg, OH, United States
  • 06-09-17

A Thesis On Shakespeare

Unless you are planning to use this book for some illegal plagiarism, you may well find it overly academic.

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Ultimate undone by the topic

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I think it's an interesting book with some great background on the people and activities related to the study of Shakespeare.

Would you be willing to try another book from Bill Bryson? Why or why not?

Absolutely. It was entertaining.

Have you listened to any of Bill Bryson’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

The performance is excellent, but I think the subject matter of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" or "A Walk In The Woods" lent themselves to better performances.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No. It's more of a dip your toe in, and then come back.

Any additional comments?

The only problem with this audiobook is really the subject. In the end, there just isn't that much known about Shakespeare's life that we can really establish. And Bill Bryson does a great job establishing that point in an entertaining manner.

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Surprising Shakespeare Facts

I always love Bill Bryson and learn a lot. But I didn't know he would present such a wealth of facts on London. and England in the 16th century, and Shakespeare. Wow!

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Always enjoy Bill Bryson

I always enjoy Bill Bryson. He has a great sense of humor and appears to have done quite a lot of research for this book. I had no idea just how many people thought Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. It's a wonderful read/listen. I highly recommend it.

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Delightfully Bill Bryson

Read by the author, so you get all of his wonderful wit, charm, and expression.

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  • Tracet
  • Hamden, CT, United States
  • 07-31-16

Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare

Bill Bryson is an old friend. His approach to history makes the standard tome all the more flat and dull by comparison – Bryson knows his stuff well enough to not only present it to an audience but to play with it, to have fun with it, to make it fun. He genuinely loves his subjects, and it is infectious. He's like the teacher you always hoped to get – the brilliant, funny, cool one who (to use a real example) sat cross-legged on the table at the front of the room and told the most amazing stories and made you sorry when the class was over, rather than the one who turned the lights off and showed irrelevant slides to a group of uninterested and often napping art students at the deadly time of 3:00 in the afternoon.

With The World as Stage, Bryson has succumbed to the lure of adding to the groaning shelves of Shakespeare biography, with the excuse (if he needs one) that herein will lie only what is known beyond doubt. Shakespeare biography is, he tells us, 90% conjecture, and about 5% fact; here he tries to gather together "just the facts" (I said that, he didn't), and talk about where they originated and about the conjecture they've sparked and the probabilities therein.

For example, he begins with the visual image of Shakespeare as we know it. He efficiently dissects the three images most closely associated with him, the three on which all others are based: the Chandos portrait (which may not be Shakespeare); the engraving which appeared as the frontispiece of the First Folio (which is bloody awful); and the bust that is part of his memorial (many of the details of which have been obliterated). Did he look like any or all of these? Maybe. What, exactly, did he look like? We don't really know.

When was he born, and where? We're not sure.

How did he do in school? We don't even know that he went – though it's probable.

How was his marriage to Anne Hathaway? We have no idea – we don't even know that "Anne" was her name; her father's will refers to her as Agnes. I never knew that.

And so forth. Data is so very scarce for many reasons. It's been four hundred years; records have deteriorated or gone up in flames; what records there are can be next to impossible to locate and once located to read and/or decipher. Shakespeare's name was spelled dozens of different ways, including by himself, and never "Shakespeare". Even with all that, a researcher simply can't expect so very many mentions of Shakespeare in the public record: unless he was getting married, baptizing a child, or involved in an arrest or lawsuit (or dying), there simply would be no official documentation. If for no other reason, I would treasure this book for two things: first was the story of the husband and wife team of Charles and Hulda Wallace who, driven in the early 1900's by the husband's obsession with Shakespeare, spent 18 hour days poring over the public record from Will's lifetime and made some discoveries (and then he lost his mind and went paranoiac and into oil). I know it marks me out as a bit freaky, but I'll admit it anyway: I would give a lot to be able to go and spend 18 hours a day studying cramped and often faded and illegible 16th century documents looking for mentions of Shakespeare. Sounds like a dream job. Seriously. The second gift Bryson gives me in this is the concept that if there really was a Love's Labours Won, there were probably enough copies made that it could still be found one day. (Way to reduce a Shakespeare geek to tears, Bryson.) (Sadly, in the interview which serves as Chapter 10, he contradicts that. But hope springs, and all that.)

I call myself a Shakespeare geek, and probably shouldn't; for me it refers to my deep affection and fascination for the man and his work – thirst for knowledge, not necessarily possession of knowledge. I know more than the average bear, but not enough to truly qualify me as a geek. For example, I had no idea that Will's brother Edmund was an actor (and died at only 27 in the same year as their mother, both of unknown causes). I also didn't know Walt Whitman was a rabid anti-Stratfordian (which Bryson doesn't mention, but which I discovered in related reading.) I do know enough not to trust any single source – not even Bill Bryson …

Bill Bryson reads his own words, and I enjoy his voice, lightly deep, young and humorous and pleasant. He reads naturally and easily, with healthy pauses where they're needed and not where they are not. And it's fun to listen to the British influence on his accent (he was born in Des Moines, lived there from 1977 to 1995, moved back to the US, then returned to England in '03, where he remains). It's not wholly a British accent, but there is British in it; I feel like Sherlock Holmes tracing his travels through his enunciation, except that I'm going about it backwards.

Much as I enjoy Bryson's reading, though, I'm not sure audio is the best format for this, for me. For a book like this I need to be able to flip back and see what year the will was found, and remind myself of names of the Folger Library archivists Bryson talked to, and how many Shakespeare-related publications he mentioned were there, and so on. It's a lot harder to do this with audio, even the comparatively flexible medium of a digital file on my iPod. Also, I suspect there are illustrations in the tangible editions; there usually is an insert in exactly this sort of book.

If for no other reason, I owe Bill Bryson for a wonderful quote which I am adopting. I may have it tattooed somewhere. Written in a letter to a friend upon having written a preface to Delia Bacon's dense and nutty anti-Stratfordian book (without having read it): "This shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody again as long as I live." ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne. (In L.M. Montgomery, the only people who share my last name are nasty cows. In The World as Stage, the city of my birth is the home and gravesite of Delia Bacon. *sigh*) I kind of want to go lay Hawthorne's quote, in illuminated calligraphy and elaborately framed, on her grave. (I just might.)

Bryson devotes a chapter – a funny, sardonic, bubble-popping chapter – to what is often called the Authorship Question. To wit: that actor guy who couldn't even spell his own name couldn't have written the finest works in the English language. Bryson happily takes that concept apart, and then takes its component pieces apart. I'm a Stratfordian, and … honestly, as a rock-solid Stratfordian, I'll admit, I have a sneaking affection for the Oxfordian theory of authorship. It's fun. It's balderdash, but it is fun. Not, however as much fun as the Marlovian theory – who doesn't love the idea of someone faking his death so as to become a better spy, as well as to go off and write the finest plays and poetry the English language has ever produced? I would love to play with that story … But the Kit-Marlowe-didn't-die-at-Deptford story is mostly wishful thinking for me, because I have an unaccountable fondness for the man.

But when all is said and done, I can only marvel at the insistence of so many otherwise intelligent people that Shakespeare could not have had the education or breadth of experience to write his plays. First of all – no one knows that. Bill Bryson takes great pains to enumerate all the things we do not know about William Shakespeare. (And even at that we know more about him than about 99% of his contemporaries.) Second of all … A large plank in the platform of many of the Theorists is that the author of the plays has to have been a lawyer because of the extent to which the law is referenced in the plays, and/or has to have traveled extensively because of the non-English settings of so many plays … et cetera. I can only conclude that the people who hold those beliefs have never written fiction. I know next to nothing about cars, but if I decided to create a character like Mercedes Thompson I could crack a book or talk to a mechanic (or use the internet), and present a reasonable simulation of expertise. I am not now nor ever have been a forensic analyst, but I can talk (within very strict limits) about petechial hemorrhaging and lividity and epithelial cells and loops and whorls and so on without making a total fool of myself, because of exposure to stories about forensic analysts. If I needed more artistic verisimilitude for an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, I could – again – crack a book or talk to a CSI (or wander the internet). If I want to set a book in Katmandu, I don't have to go there; it's a wonderful thing to be able to do so, but - - it's called "research".

Oddly, it's an defense I haven't seen used in what I've read about the Authorship Question. It just seems so obvious…

Shakespeare was not writing in a vacuum, all alone and armed only with his own direct experience. If fiction was written under those rules, science fiction, fantasy, most mystery, and a large percentage of non-subgenre novels would be impossible. In [book:Bird by Bird|12543], Anne Lamott writes a wonderful account of calling up a local vintner to ask what the wire gadget is called that anchors the cork in a champagne bottle. As she points out, most people are delighted to talk about their vocations. All those reference to the law? Shakespeare went out and observed, and read, and talked to lawyers. All those Italian settings? Shakespeare went out and read, and talked to sailors and other travelers (and either did not pay close attention or got bad information, as his geography is way off in several cases). Every single one of the objections that "Shakespeare couldn't have known that" can be knocked down with two simple sentences: "We don't know what he knew", and "If he didn't know, he asked". It's just all so foolish.

What's rather alarming, reading about the theories, is reading in turn about this new movie that came out right around the time I listened to this, "Anonymous". (Which, not to be obtuse about it, is rather an idiotic name, isn't it, if the theory is that in order to disseminate his work Edward DeVere made use of some guy named Shakespeare as a front for the plays? They're not by "Anonymous", after all.) It was part of the Oxfordian cabal's arsenal – and the worrying bit was that they spread high school and college study guides as far and wide as they could. Not, from what I understand, insisting that DeVere was actually the author, but raising the question suggestively. "Make your own decision," they seem to say, "was it Sir Edward DeVere 17th Earl of Oxford … or was it that guy Wilm Shaksper whose father made gloves?"

In the end, for me the Authorship Question has the kind of interest of one of those alternate histories: what if the South had won the Civil War, or if Hitler had won WWII? Or (not that I've seen this one, yet) what if the moon really was made of green cheese? The South and Hitler didn't, and the moon isn't, and while what-if's are entertaining, they're not otherwise productive. And, in the end, did the world desperately need one more book about Shakespeare? Well, no. But am I for one happier because Bill Bryson wrote one? Yeah. I am.

And for heaven's sake, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

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  • Scott
  • Philadelphia, PA, United States
  • 06-12-16

Very enjoyable

Concise, but enjoyable biography. I particularly like the discussions dealing with the ridiculous anti-Stratfordians. Yes, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I thought this and Schapiro's book are the two best I have come across dealing with the authorship issue. In any case, I would recommend this book for anyone interested in Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare: The World as. Stage by Bryson

Wonderful book. Bryson as usual does a masterful job. This book in particular. is outstanding.

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Bryson Stikes Again

Probably my favorite non-fiction author. Great on audio too. He can make just about an subject interesting and entertaining. Interview at the end is a great bonus.