Bryson’s Shakespeare: of genius and confabulations

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The Dutch subtitle of Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare is “Een biografie” (A Biography). I read the book and found this subtitle misplaced.

The subtitle of the english original is “The World as a Stage”.  How does that translate to “Een biografie”?bryson shakespeare nl

Bryson writes right in the beginning of the book that very little is known about Shakespeare. So little, that you realistically can not expect more from a book about Shakespeare than the description of a handful of meagre facts, augmented with assumptions, phantasies and preliminary conclusions about the life and times Shakespeare.

Bryson even admits this is the reason the book has such a modest modest size.shakespears_bryson-en

The chapters are full of phrases that question the likelyhood of the assertions made. “Possibly”, “suppose”, “likely”, “the problem of explaining”,  “the records are sometimes a touch unclear”, “Shakepeare appears to have …”, “how little we know”, “Nobody knows”. And this goes on.

Nevertheless the book is fascinating. Bryson makes it very clear why Shakespeare deserves all the attention from the little information that we do know about him. And that is not only the size of his work and its originality. The contributions to the modernization of the English language is unbelievable.

He has added more than 2000 words to the English vocabulary. Either imagined himself or as the first person to use them in a written text. Only Hamlet itself contains more than 600 neologisms.Hamlet shakespeare

Similar statistics for expressions: Shakespeare created or was the first to put on record more than 10% of all the expressions from his era.

The genius of Shakespeare is so immense, and data about him so sparse, that many historians and man of literature have doubted that Shakespeare has even ever existed.The last chapters of Bryson’s book provide an overview of the many crazy theories, varying from a virtual Shakespeare based on contributions from many other authors, to complete confabulations like the idea that actually Queen Elizabeth was Shakespeare.Elizabeth_I

“The World as a Stage” is what the book is about really: a view on theatre during Shakepeare’s times.

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