Shakespeare: the World as a Stage

bill-bryson-shakespeare-the-world-as-a-stageThis month’s Crafty Writer Book Club discussion is Shakespeare: the World as a Stage by Bill Bryson. For those of you new to The Crafty Writer, once every two months (give or take) we discuss a best-selling book from a writer’s perspective. If you’re just visiting the site and haven’t participated in one of our Book Clubs before, just jump right in and leave your comments in the section below. As this is our first non-fiction book we will divide our discussion under the following headings:

Author

Bill Bryson is, to date, the author of 18 published books. He started his writing career as a journalist for the Times and the Independent but is best known for his travel writing – including Notes from a Small Island and Notes from a Big Country about his experiences in Britain and the US, respectively. Although American by birth, he now (again) lives in the UK and is a renowned anglophile. He has also written about Europe, Africa and Australia. His witty travelogues have made him a household name. Less well known are his books on language and linguistics, such as Mother Tongue: the English Language. In recent years he has achieved critical acclaim for his A Short History of Nearly Everything (2005), which won the Aventis Prize for the best general science book and a Descartes Award for communication in science. Shakespeare: the World as a Stage (2007) is his latest offering.

In 2005 he became Chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the inimitable Sir Peter Ustinov. Ten years ago, one of Shakespeare’s First Folios was stolen from Durham University in a not-so-daring heist along with other valuable manuscripts including original fragments of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In July 2007 a man walked into the Folger Library in Washington DC and asked them to authenticate a book he claimed to have bought in Cuba. It turned out to be the original Durham Folio. The FBI was contacted, then the Durham Constabulary, who tracked the man down to – of all places – Washington, Durham, UK. Bryson is said to be delighted at the imminent return of the Folio to the university (who have promised to beef up security), but I bet he would have been even more delighted if it had turned up two years ago, so he could have included a whole chapter of it in his book.

For discussion:
How do you think Bryson’s background as a journalist and travel writer helped him in writing this book?

Genre and content

At the risk of being too obvious, this is a non-fiction historical biography. It is a general introduction aimed at a populist rather than academic readership. So any suggestions that it is not furthering academia nor adds little to the scholarly canon on Shakespeare are misplaced – it is not meant to. Like any good historical biography, Bryson is concerned not simply with telling the story of an individual, but rather telling that story within a historical context. A Shakespeare born 200 years earlier or later would not have been the same Shakespeare; he is a product of and a contributor to his times. Which is just as well for Bryson who limits himself in journalistic fashion to only reporting the known facts, and, in his own words, there are so few known facts about Shakespeare that the result is a very slender volume.

This book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record. (Bryson, pp20-21)

Without the extra ‘padding’ of the historical background, there wouldn’t have been much of a book at all. Recreating the world in which Shakespeare lived is Bryson’s real gift – and he does it admirably, in good travel writing style. It is also a history of Shakespearean scholarship, and, I would argue, the latter chapters on the imposter theory and the First Folios are among his best.

For Discussion:
Suggest alternative ways Bryson could have fleshed out the actual biographical content of the book.

Research, sources and credibility

As I’ve already mentioned, this is a populist introduction to Shakespeare rather than an academic treatise. As such, the annotation of sources is not so rigorously observed – there is only a select bibliography given at the end of the book (albeit a respectable canon of 30 or so volumes), with no specific page references. But as I note in my non-fiction course, this is perfectly normal in populist non-fiction writing. And although every single fact is not footnoted and cross-referenced, the writer still needs a sense that the author has done his research and that they are not being fed a bucket of hogwash.

Bryson’s use of sources is journalistic – he piggy-backs on others’ expertise, acting as an interpreter between the academic specialists and the non-academic reader. As a non-fiction writer you don’t necessarily have to be a specialist in a field, just to have the ability to communicate information from one camp to another. However, Bryson does more than merely transpose knowledge, but more of that under structure and style.

Bryson quotes experts in direct speech, giving credence to his version of events. This is a classic journalistic technique. Experts or witnesses are interviewed, but only a fraction of what they say is actually quoted at the point where the writer needs to back up or further illustrate their interpretation of the ‘story’. He also liberally scatters references (although not annotated) to previous works throughout the text, giving the reader the impression that he has done his research. But unless we are experts in Shakespeare ourselves, we cannot know whether or not he is reporting them accurately. That is the pact that is set up between a non-fiction writer and reader. In fiction we have the notion of the ‘unreliable narrator’ or the suspicion of an unreliable narrator (see for example next month’s Book Club The Reluctant Fundamentalist) which can add a delicious twist to a novel, but in non-fiction there is no room for this concept.

For discussion:
Do you think Bryson manages to communicate credibility? If so, how does he do it?

Structure

In non-fiction writing one normally has a concept for an article or book and then does some preliminary research to see whether there is enough information to fill the pages. At this point one would then begin to get an idea of structure. The structure of a book or article is what makes one piece of writing on a subject different from another. How is the research going to be communicated? One may already have a thesis and the research will back it up, or, alternatively, another thesis will suggest itself from the research and the original one will be adapted (or even abandoned) and the information structured accordingly.

For discussion:
What is Bryson’s thesis in this book? Do you think he had it before conducting his research or did it emerge from it?

In every body of research there are potentially dozens of books or articles that could be written; your structure will determine what you will include and what you will leave out in order to support or illustrate your thesis.

In Bryson’s Shakespeare, his thesis is that there is not much factual information on Shakespeare, but he will guide us through what there is, separating fact from fiction – this is stated up front in the first chapter ‘In Search of William Shakespeare’. On the way he will introduce us to the world in which Shakespeare lived (chapters 2, 3, 4, 6 & 7) and the literary and academic world that emerged after his death (chapters 8 & 9). Chapter 5, in which evidence for the plays themselves are discussed, is a fulcrum for the whole book. However, I think this is his weakest chapter, as the structure is too loose. One almost has the sense of bullet points rather than a flowing narrative. Overall, Bryson uses a chronological structure with a subject grouping running parallel to the timeline.

For discussion:
‘Chapter five: the plays’ could have been placed elsewhere in the table of contents. Alternatively, the information within it could have been scattered through the other chapters. Why do you think Bryson chose this particular structure? Can you suggest a different structure for the available material? Would you have done it differently?

Style

We’ve already discussed Bryson’s journalistic style, but we haven’t touched on his gift as a travel writer. In this book I see Bryson approaching his subject in the same way he approaches a culture or country in his travelogues. He takes us, the reader, on a journey through a little-known or unknown world. Collectively we are on a tour bus, which at times speeds through the boring areas and stops at those of greater interest. Bryson is a quirky guide (which is the charm of his travelogues) and he highlights the awe-inspiring and the ridiculous, the grand and the petty, in equal measure. Bryson believes that the minutae of life are sometimes of more interest than the sweeping politics of the day; I couldn’t agree more.

In my non-fiction course, I mention how contemporary non-fiction style is far less formal than it was in the past. Gone is the author referring to him or herself as ‘the author’. Bryson himself is ever present – just like a friendly tour guide. And although the facts and only the facts are reported in good journalistic style, he is not averse to commenting on them. In my opinion, that’s what makes this book the gem that it is. His wry asides and witty observations at times made me laugh out loud and turned what could have been simply an informative introduction to the life and times of Shakespeare and a turgid overview of Shakespearean scholarship, into one of the most entertaining books of the year.

For discussion:
In your opinion, what other elements of non-fiction writing style may help to endear this text to the reader?

Marketing

Bryson has become a brand. This was illustrated superbly in 2002 when Penguin re-released their ‘Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words’ (first written by Bryson in 1983) and renamed it Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Bryson has become synonymous with good writing, good entertainment and a good read. I doubt someone else without Shakespearean credentials could have got away with writing this book. Good branding equals credibility. We trust Bryson. Whether we should or not, is another matter.

For discussion:
Bryson took a risk in moving from his successful travel niche into the general non-fiction market. His first two books seem to show that it’s paid off. Do you think readers will now ‘trust’ Bryson enough with any topic?

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14 comments on “Shakespeare: the World as a Stage

  1. Ordinarily I wouldn’t pick up and read a book about the life of Shakespeare – at least not willingly. But I did this one precisely because Bryson wrote it. And I really enjoyed it. I found it similar in many ways to his Short History of Nearly Everything. Quite how he manages to assimilate such huge quantities of information on a subject, and then convey them clearly and in an entertaining manner to a lay audience is beyond me…but that’s why I enjoy his work.

  2. Pingback: Shakespeare Blog Carnival #7 | The Bard Blog - Shakespeare Info

  3. Darrell on said:

    My favorite Bryson book is “A Walk in the Woods,” and I was a fan of his “Mother Tongue” book years ago when I didn’t even know who he was (and no one else did either, really). I picked this one up since I started back teaching Shakespeare in middle school, and though it offered little help in that regard, it was a good read, clarifying some of the bio info I give out to students. It makes for a pleasant read and makes you look smart when people see you reading it in airports and such.

  4. Fiona on said:

    Hi Darrell. I was reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist at an airport on 11 September and got some very odd looks!!!!!! Bryson would have been far better. Glad you enjoyed it and I hope you join us for the next book club read at the end of the month.

  5. Karen M on said:

    I’m another one who read this just because Bill Bryson wrote it. Well, that and the fact that it was a Christmas present.I think it illustrates more than any of his books that he can make absolutely anything, even padding, seem interesting and entertaining, and accessible too. It’s not so much what he writes as how he writes it – you get swept along in the enjoyment and only afterwards realise that quite often he’s just waffling with panache.
    I find this one and ‘Mother Tongue’ a bit different from his travel books in that his credentials as a wordsmith are obvious and give him authority on the subjects. In the travel books half the fun is that he comes across as being not very good at travelling. I loved his description of himself (can’t remember which book)as having ‘happy hair.’I could go on and on – I love ‘em all!

  6. Rodney Smith on said:

    I’ve got to agree with Darrell – A Walk in the Woods is my favourite too. He presents himself as such a bumbling oaf (which clearly he is not), and manages to weave in all kinds of fascinating historical trivia along the way. A really good read!

  7. Waffling with panache! I love it!

  8. Darrell on said:

    I love panache on my waffles!

  9. Karen Hall on said:

    I love the thought of waffling with panache – I wish I had that technique. I too love Bill Bryson’s books although Walk in the Woods is in a pile waiting to be read somewhere. Thunderbolt Kid had me howling with laughter so this was a bit of a change. I was impressed with the facts – and with his demolishing of so much i always understood to be “gospel”. Including little snippets of info about the times and some of the people brought it very much alive for me. The trouble is that although I was fascinated by so many of the facts I can’t remember any of them so I want to read it again and again until I remember and can impress my friends with my knowledge! I’ve read criticisms of the book for not being scholarly enough but I don’t think his intention was to write a scholarly text – i think he set out to amuse and inform and achieved it.

  10. Well said Karen! But I don’t think most other writers would be able to get away with simply amusing and informing in such a scholarly field, do you? I contend that he was given grace to do so simply because of Brand Bryson. What do you think?

  11. Karen M on said:

    Good point, Fiona, and seen even more obviously in the fact that he managed to write ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ and have it published even though he’s neither a scientist or an historian. But that’s his skill – he can filter immense amounts of facts and present them to ordinary readers in an accessible way, picking up on the human interest as well as the ‘heavy’ facts.

  12. Karen Hall on said:

    It’s a good point – Bryson will sell just because he is Bryson. A new writer offering that to a editor would probably be told that they wouldn’t know where to place it. It isn’t scholarly enough to be considered academic and yet how many people casually pick up a book on Shakespeare for light reading?
    When I worked in the book shop it didn’t sell as well as his other recent book Thunderbolt Kid but it also didn’t seem to get the same level of promotion. It was also shelved in Biography which whilst technically correct meant it was a bit lost amidst bestsellers like My Booky Wook and Richard Hammond’s biog (the title of which eludes me)

  13. Interesting that you say sales of Shakespeare were down at your shop Karen. Bad move to put it in biography, me thinks. History or literature would have been better. Who makes these category decisions? Is it up to each shop manager?

  14. Karen Hall on said:

    For the shop I was working in the decision was made at head office. As were decsions about what to stock. It may have changed now as it has been taken over but I always felt a bit more local decision making wouldn’t be a bad thing as what will sell fantastically in London will not necessarily go down well up here. Similarly there were books (mainly by local authors) which I felt we should have stocked and didn’t.
    As for where to put Shakespeare I have to admit I am not sure. In Literature possibly but then it wouldn’t be spotted by the reader of light non-fiction. I’d probably put a few in each section which might solve one problem but would be difficult for stock control. Interestingly the University I now work at hasn’t got a copy in the library. Obviously too lightweight..??

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