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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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  • Overall

Too Little, Too Short

Bill Bryson's voice (both actual and literary) shine through in this short work, detailing what is known and knowable about William Shakespeare. Because little is known about Shakespeare, this book has less of the amusing anecdotes that make books like "In a Sunburned Country" such a delight. It's quite frustrating to realize that we know so little about a figure so important to English literature. Still it is an interesting exposition on an interesting man, or rather, what we expect is an interesting man. The audiobook it self is only a little over 5 hours long, but (as of November 2007) there is an interview with Bryson appended on end for another bit. I liked it, but then I expect that I would enjoy Bryson writing about asparagus. The chapter where he discusses the various theories about Shakespeare not actually writing the plays of Shakespeare is the best part; but there the book ends. In the end it is a barely satifying book because of the paucity of the material, but it is a book that is well written and narrated.

30 of 30 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Cather
  • Cumberland, VA, United States
  • 12-09-07

Bryson does it again...

Bryson admits up front that we know practically nothing about Shakespeare, but proceeds to tell what we do know, and how we know it, about the Bard himself, London, and the theatre world at the time. And he does it in classic Bryson style, finding the humor in everything.

And clearly, he's having fun reading it. He should... it's a fun book.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Crystal
  • Phoenix, AZ, United States
  • 02-24-13

Unexpected Findings in a Quality Bryson Book

There's not much that can shock me about Shakespeare theories. I have a BA in English Literature. I've read all the plays, sonnets, even the ones suspected to be by Shakespeare.

It seemed an odd topic for beloved Bryson to tackle and I was curious about his angle on it. I was pleasantly surprised, "What do we really know about the bard?" he asks in the first chapter.

This was a refreshing and lively investigation into what's real and what's dreamed about one man's life. Solid topics, using all types of research from court records to paintings, Bryson gives a new eye on an ages old mystery. In the process, we learn about how many things have simply been made up by well meaning researchers for the past four hundred years!

I found myself wishing there was more. I loved it.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Cathleen
  • Chicago, IL, United States
  • 03-22-09

A Walk in the Forest Arden

My first exposure to Bill Bryson was A Walk in the Woods and I enjoy it still. Shakespeare is a different book -- more journalism than recollection, but it is extremely enjoyable and a good "listen" -- the chapters lend themselves to logical breaks, etc. And it is very amusing!

All of the historical detail is fascinating, and makes one wonder how we ever got the folio version of the plays at all. Probably the most interesting part for me was the debunking of all the "He didn't write the plays" theories.

Very enjoyable.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Concise and Wonderful

The world, or at least my world, needs more high quality concise books. Bryson's new Shakespeare, from the Eminent Lives Series, is one of the genres better examples.

The Modern Library Chronicles is another imprint with some excellent texts. To quote from their page:

"Modern Library Chronicles feature the world's great historians on the world's great subjects. Lively, accessible, and brief (most under 150 pages), these authoritative short histories are designed to appeal to general readers as well as to students in the classroom".

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Catherine
  • Decatur, IL, United States
  • 01-24-12

Don't know much about Shakespeare

Bill Bryson talks as much about what we don't know about Shakespeare (or Shacksper or Shakspere, etc.) as what we do know. It is informative in a negative sort of way, with digressions on Shakespeare scholars, life and theater in the Elizabethan and Jacobian ages, and a bit about who else might have written the plays. I recommend it.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Very enjoyable in the typical Bryson style

This one is more in the historical vein of "Mother Tongue" or "Made in America" (as opposed to memoirs like "In a Sunburned Country" or "A Walk in the Woods"). Not as laugh-out-loud funny as his memoir-style books, but entertaining and fascinating, I thought.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Humorous & Accessible

Bill Bryson narrates his own humorous review of Shakespeare's life and the scholarship that's grown up around it. Bryson's reading is staccato and a bit dry at first, but I warmed to it over time. This is not a book for scholars or even serious students of Shakespeare. It's a funny look at the man who has affected so much and about whom so little is known. That said, Bryson appears to have done his homework. I learned enough to feel inoculated against silly conspiracy theories on the one hand or purist dogma on the other. Definitely recommended

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Perfect biography for school

My 7 th grade son has taken an interest in Shakespeare over the last school year and during our travel to London this summer. We were looking for a biography for summer reading requirements that was detailed, yet not such a large volume. This was perfect. We both enjoyed the Kindle and Audible version, and having been in so many of the places recently, including a performace at The Globe, it was like reliving all of the tours we had just taken. The thorough investigation and accumulation of facts regarding what we know, and what we don't know, was both digestable and intriguing for my son. It left him begging for a trip to the Folger Shakespeare Museum not far from us in Washington, DC. Thank you!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating discourse

Fascinating discourse on an enigmatic character in a very interesting age. William Shakespeare was clearly William Shakespeare.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful