Sunday, March 16, 2008

International Man of Mystery

What do we really know of William Shakespeare? He (probably) wrote several plays that are widely heralded as classics. He borrowed ideas liberally from many sources. While he was reasonably well-off, he was never as famous as one would think, given the amount of accolades and attention sent his way.

Bill Bryson tries to answer these questions in Shakespeare - The World as Stage, a brief look at the life (and times) of William Shakespeare.

This is a short book, which is appropriate, considering the rather large number of primary historical sources available to today's historians. Considering the place Shakespeare's work holds in modern literature, one could find this rather surprising; however, the years and shoddy record keeping of the time have made Shakespeare more a mystery than the world's most famous playwright.

I'm a big fan of Bryson's work - he has a humorous, light writing style, and his research is always first rate. It's the little facts and the side characters that bring Bryson's works to life. For example, there are only six examples of Shakespeare's signature remaining in the world today . . . and none of them are spelled the same way. Charles and Hulda Wallace, a Nebraska couple, found many examples of Shakespeare in the public record early in the 20th century; they probably would have found more, except that Charles became increasingly paranoid and was let go by the University of Nebraska, where he was a professor. Don't feel bad for Wallace though - his follow-up career was looking at land and determining if it contained oil. He sunk most of his remaining money in 160 acres in Texas - that happened to be one of the richest oil finds in history. Wallace, among others are some of the major players in Shakespeare scholarship.

In addition to the eccentric side characters, Bryson spends time acknowledging the debt we owe Shakespeare today:

"Among the first words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless). Where would we be without them? He was particularly prolific, as David Crystal points out, when it came to attaching un- prefixes to existing words to make new words that no one had though of before - unmask, unhand, unlock, untie, unveil and no fewer than309 others in a similar vein. Consider how helplessly prolix the alternatives to any of these terms are and you appreciate how much punch Shakespeare gave English."

Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book a lot. It's a nice, simple introduction to the life of a man who helped shape literature and language today.

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