An interesting fact about Shakespeare’s life is that we really don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life. After reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare : the World as Stage, I find myself wondering just what kind of man Shakespeare was. Did he have many friends? Did he get along with his neighbors? Was he jolly and jovial? Or broodingly artistic? Was he a good father? Was he deeply in love with Anne Hathaway? But definite answers to these questions are not likely to ever be uncovered. Bryson calls him the “best known and least known of figures.”
This leads to much inferring and conjecture. Even what Shakespeare looked like is a matter of doubt.
Upon viewing the Chandos portrait, which only may be Shakespeare’s likeness, Bryson fancies that he was “confident, serenely rakish” and that the earring in his left ear reveals him to be “a bit bohemian,” which feels appropriate. His black attire denotes a certain level of prosperity. Since it took a good amount of dye to produce deeply black clothing, the color wasn’t typically worn by the lower classes. (Later in the book Bryson gives an interesting break down of what you could tell about a person from their clothing because there were laws in place which dictated who could wear what based on wealth and rank.)
Another possible likeness of Shakespeare comes in the form of the Droeshout engraving, which was attached to the cover of the First Folio. Bryson notes this work as mediocre due to it’s disproportionate features and describes the subject as “diffident, apologetic, almost frightened.” I’m not sure I completely agree with that assessment, diffident perhaps, but apologetic and frightening is a stretch for me.
The last image we have is the bust which stands in the Holy Trinity Church in Stradford. Bryson characterized the subject here as “puffy – faced and self-satisfying” and Mark Twain said of it that he had the “deep, deep, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder.”
Indeed, Shakespeare as a man is hard to figure. And as many of us in the classic book blogging community like to uncover as much as possible about the lives of the authors we love, this can feel frustrating. Bryson notes;
“It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things–as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.”
Much of the first half of the book could aptly be titled, “Shakespeare’s Times” as Bryson paints a picture of the England of Shakespeare’s childhood which was marked by rampant plagues, a changing religious climate with the country shifting from Catholicism to Protestantism, and by the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He comments on the multitude of ways in which government affected people’s everyday lives, even to the point of dictating how many courses a person could eat at a meal. A cardinal, he explained, was allowed 9 courses, while a person earning less than 40 pounds per year was only permitted two courses. As stringent as this sounds, it was a far cry less oppressive than the time of Henry VIII when eating meat on Friday was a grave offense, punishable by hanging!
Again, since there is so much that remains uncertain, Bryson uses the context of Shakespeare’s times combined with certain details to point to experiences he may or may not have had. For instance, noting that Shakespeare’s father, John, served as a bailiff in Stratford meant that he approved funds for traveling shows which might have given young Shakespeare an early exposure to the theater. Likewise, since any boy could attend a nearby grammar school, it is assumed that Shakespeare did. Bryson gives an account of the typical grammar school experience for boys in Elizabethan England and notes that Shakespeare’s time there would have given him a foundation in Latin and Greek as well as in the use of rhetorical devices.
What Shakespeare did in the years after his education would have ended is unclear, but he applied for a marriage license in 1582 and married Anne Hathaway, who gave birth to their first daughter Susanna in 1583 and then to twins, Hamnet and Judith in 1585.
At some point between 1585 – 1592, Shakespeare left his hometown of Stratford with his sights set on London, where he sealed his career as a poet and playwright. These years are noted as “The Lost Years,” because how and why and through what connections Shakespeare managed this are unknown. (“unknown” is a word I’m getting used to in regard to Shakespeare)
Much of what is known about the theaters and performances in Shakespeare’s day are details that have been extracted and gathered from the diaries of tourists and sketch artists. One such tourist, Johannes de Witt, made a sketch that has become known as “The Swan Sketch,” of the Swan Theater, which is the only known interior image of an Elizabethian playhouse (though there’s no known connection between Shakespeare and this theater, the rendering is likely similar to the original interior of the Globe).
An early 1600s engraving by Claus Jan Visscher depicts the first Globe Theater (on the right – click for larger detail):
A panorama, called the Long View drawn by Wenceslas Hollar in the 1640s shows the second Globe which was built in 1614 after the first one burnt down the year prior:
At the Globe plays were performed at 2:00, the price to stand was a penny, two pennies to sit. There was no stage set or curtains, but costumes were generally elaborate. Though it was an era marked by poverty and plagues (which would temporarily shut down the playhouses in 1592), somehow the theater, and therefore Shakespeare, prospered. He frequently performed for the queen and one of his performances was the last one that she would see before she died at the age of 69.
Queen Elizabeth was succeeded by King James, who Bryson described as “graceless” and owning a strange obsession with fondling his codpiece, making him sound a little less than kingly. However, like Queen Elizabeth, King James too liked his entertainment and one of his first acts as king was to appoint Shakespeare and his troupe as King’s Men.
It was during the reign of King James that the the Blackfriars theater was finally opened. It differed from the Globe in that the price of admission was a sixpence, performers utilized string instruments rather than brass, and there was also stage seating (for an additional cost), allowing for audience interaction.
That much of Shakespeare’s work is available to us today at all is thanks to Henry Condell and John Heminges who were responsible for putting together the First Folio which was not published until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. None of Shakespeare’s works were officially published during his lifetime.
Bryson’s most witty and entertaining chapter is the final one, in which he examines the controversy surrounding the authenticity of Shakespeare’s authorship. But since this posting is so long already and since I wouldn’t do it justice anyway, I’ll leave that for you to read for yourself. :)
Bryson’s slim biography was well worth the short time that it took to read it. I learned a great deal about Shakespeare’s life and times without feeling “stuffed” with information. Yes, the last chapter is amusing but the entire book is peppered with wit and humor, which did much to keep my attention and focus. This is precisely the kind of book that I would love to have about all my favorite authors. Bryson’s style is accessible and entertaining and he imparts just enough to provide a framework and a springboard for more in depth exploration. He ignited my interest without overwhelming me. I appreciated his brevity. I’m stoked to read more about Shakespeare and feel like I now have a good foundation for doing so.