History / Travel / United Kingdom

Two Thumbs Up for Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage

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We, and much of the rest of the world, were introduced to Bill Bryson’s work in his hilarious Notes From a Small Island. We were living in London at the time, and could absolutely relate to his quirky take on being an American abroad.

He’s a fabulous story-teller and his ability to make even the most mundane minutia from everyday life interesting and frequently funny, has made us big fans throughout his career.

And as a part of the Eminent Lives series, Bill Bryson pens another entertaining and informative success in his short biography Shakespeare: The World as Stage. In his typical in-depth, clever, and entertaining fashion, Bryson sorts through research, past and present, to set the record straight on exactly what we do, and in most cases don’t, know about William Shakespeare.

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The most celebrated poet in the English language left behind a literary legacy of nearly one million words of text, but in 400 years of relentless searching, only about 100 documents relating to Shakespeare have been found. Of these, most were property deeds, tax and legal records, which tell us a bit about the business of the man’s life, but amazingly little about the man.

For instance: did you know that the words “abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless)” were coined by Shakespeare. –Bill Bryson

In fact, these are only a few of the 2035 words, first used by The Bard of Avon.

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Add to this extensive list of words phrases like: “one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness…” and hundreds of others.

Even if you aren’t a huge Shakespeare fan, Bryson’s book is loaded with fascinating details about how the poet plied his trade as well as what life was like at the end of the 16th Century. It’s the best of biography and history rolled together in a very amusing and readable package. In the words of famous movie critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert, we give this book “”Two Thumbs Up.” Don’t miss it.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

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Photo Credits:
1. By JD554 via Wikimedia Commons
3. Courtesy of The New Victory Theatre
4. By Patrick Corrigan, the long-time cartoonist for the Toronto Sun.

50 thoughts on “Two Thumbs Up for Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage

  1. Thanks for the suggestion. I love Bill Bryson. His audio books have taken me over many miles of prairie driving. On more than one occasion I thought I might need to pull over from laughing so hard.

  2. Bill Bryson is an exceptional story teller. I was in stitches with the first of his books that I read, ‘Down Under’ and have a collection of some of his other ones waiting to be read (I’m very good at buying books, not so good at reading them…).

    • Fi, I’m sort of the same way about buying vs. reading. Thank goodness for ebooks. Bryson’s powers of observation, his research into little-known history, and his ability to pull all this together into such funny books is amazing to me. ~James

    • Jeff, I’m sure that you’ll enjoy this book. There’s been so much research done on Shakespeare, and after reading this book, you’ll find that much of it is hokum. It’s also provides a great view of life in the late 17th century. ~James

    • Beth, I’ve read much of his work as well, and have never been disappointed. But I think that my favorite is still “Notes from a Small Island.” I was adjusting to life in the UK at the time, and it just struck a cord. ~James

    • Darlene, this book is right up your alley. Bryson sorts the wheat from the chaff on Shakespeare, and you’ll enjoy the insights into the theatrical community and how they did their business at the time. And can you believe all the words and phrases he coined! ~James

  3. My waiting pile of books is burgeoning, but I will keep this one in mind! He is definitely an amusing writer; I had no idea he ever wrote on topics outside of travel or geography of some kind. Then again, I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, so what do I know? In any case, thanks for the suggestion.

    • Lexie, Bryson has written a fair amount of non-travel non-fiction (I worked on that phrase.). When I’m reading I don’t laugh out loud very often, but he never fails to get a few laughs out of me. He has this wonderful technique of writing along describing some serious historical event, and then totally unexpectedly, getting in a funny zinger that catches me by surprise. Great stuff! ~James

    • Carol I’m amazed at Bryson’s research and how he always seems to find interesting and funny nuggets about the most boring of characters, e.g. a 19th century vicar in some tiny English village. ~James

    • Leslie, I recommend this book to everyone, particularly Shakespeare fans. There’s just so much interesting info here. Here’s an example from the book: “Although he left nearly a million words of text, we have just fourteen words in his own hand – his name signed six times and the words “by me” on his will.” Can you believe this? ~James

  4. What a coincidence! I’m reading Notes from a Small Island now, and Bert received The Road to Little Dribbling as a Christmas present. We love Bryson’s way with words. And when we were in England touring the Roman baths in Bath, we found that there is a number to follow on the headsets just for Bryson’s commentary. Hilarious, as usual! Thanks for the post today!

    • Rusha, I’m sure that the hedonism of the Roman baths gave Bryson lots of great material. I just started “At Home: A short history of Private life,” and it’s typical Bryson, filled with interesting and funny historical details and observations about modern life as well. You might enjoy that one as well. ~James

  5. I used to be a big Bill Bryson fan, but not any more. I gave up on the Shakespeare book and was incredibly disappointed with the Little Dribbling book. I just took a second look at it, because I remembered there were a few places he mentioned I might want to visit, and there were, but most of the book was eminently skippable. And the Bryson line was a sick joke – he only visited the two ends. Most of the time he was getting drunk and wittering on about nothing much.

    • Kathy, writers and readers evolve and I guess that’s the nature of the beast. And for popular, widely published writers, I can imagine how difficult it is to stay fresh after years and book after book. ~James

  6. I’m a huge Bill Bryson fan. I was introduced to his books 10 years ago by reading A Walk In The Woods … still one of my favourites. I will definitely be looking for this one.

    Years ago when my youngest son was in high school, I helped him research a paper about the influence of Shakespeare on our language today. I was dumbfounded by what I learned. THAT is what should be taught in schools. It would give some context as to why we continue to force-feed Shakespeare’s work on teenagers who just don’t get the point and accordingly tune it out.

    • Joanne, until I read this book, you’ll have to include me on the list of people that had no clue about the incredible contribution that Shakespeare made to the English language. And your point about teaching this to kids is excellent. In fact, there’s so much interesting period detail, facts, and trivia, it would be easy to design a class to keep even the most dis-interested student’s attention. ~James

  7. I thought you might find this amusing ….
    I just looked up this book on Amazon. It doesn’t appear to be available in Kindle format …. except in German.
    German? What the ….?

  8. Pingback: Two Thumbs Up for Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage | GALLIVANCE | Rogues & Vagabonds

  9. Shakespeare may have been the original and prolific wordsmith but I can’t think of a better writer than Bryson to shed a light on the man and in an interesting and hilarious way. “The Mother Tongue” is one of my favorite books and I’ve been looking forward to reading “A Walk in the Woods.” Thanks for your suggestion and I’ll be adding “Shakespeare” to my future list as well. So glad it’s available in ebook format – downloadable anywhere in the world! Anita

    • Anita, I haven’t read “The Mother Tongue” but I will eventually get around to it. Right now I’m reading “At home: A short history of Private Life” and really enjoying it. And I’m with you on ebooks. I’m probably 75% ebooks these days and it’s great. I can read on about 5 different gadgets, but my favorite is a Kindle Paperwhite. It’s so incredibly lightweight (great for travel) and is has a backlight. My oh my how far we’ve come. ~James

  10. Interesting.

    In many ways, I want to call the book a triumph of style over subtsance, without meaning it pejoratively. Bryson’s style is wonderfully engaging, but the book spends most of its time reminding us how little we actually know, which makes it more frustrating than some of his other works.

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. I’ve always had a casual interest in Shakespeare, but haven’t really made the effort to find out much about him. So it took an entertaining writer like Bryson to motivate me to discover a bit more about the man and not just his work, and for that, I am grateful. But having said that, I can understand how serious Shakespeare aficionados might find this book entertaining, but not necessarily enlightening. ~James

  11. Sounds very interesting. I used to love reading Bill Bryson’s books but his negativity and insults in The Road to Little Dribbling left me extremely disappointed.

    • Thanks for the comment Denzil and for dropping by the blog. I read Little Dribbling as well, and like you, it wasn’t one of my favorites. As an American, Bryson chooses to live in the UK, so he must have some level of fondness for the country. And most of the negative things he had to say were really about changes to aspects of life there that he doesn’t particularly care for. As a very successful writer this is his prerogative. But in the meantime, readers will just vote with their wallets and choose or not choose to buy his next book. However, having said that, I still very much respect his work, and hope he gets back on track in his next book. ~James

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