OK, this title didn't send me scurrying to the shelves, but when I saw that Shakespeare: The World as Stage was written by the incomparable Bill Bryson I was delighted with my find. I love the way Bryson serves up information that's good for you and presents it with so much great storytelling, wry observation and outright wit that its impossible not to get smarter just reading him--sometimes in spite of yourself.
Shakespeare the man is a challenging subject. There's not much known about the Bard, who departed this good life in 1616 without leaving posterity much of a personal record. As Bryson points out, there are only a handful of days in Shakespeare's entire life about which we can say "...with absolutely certainty where he was." So, four hundred years later, to know Shakespeare the man one must understand the world in which he lived.
Bryson is a jolly tour guide to this world, clearly at home in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He happily walks us through these calamitous times and covers all manner of diverse topics along the way, from economics (a well-paid headmaster earned 20 pounds annually) to societal norms (40 percent of brides were pregnant on their wedding day), and from jurisprudence (you could be fined for letting your ducks wander in the road) to diet (folks liked their food sweet, so black teeth, rotted from sugar, were commonplace. Poor people blackened their teeth so as to look more prosperous). There's fascinating stuff to learn about the theater, too (the Puritans believed theaters were "hotbeds of sodomy [and] wanton liaisons," and blamed them for all sorts of social ills and even a few natural calamities, like the earthquake of 1580).
Having set the stage, Bryson then drills down and comes up with data from 400-year-old legal documents, third-party accounts, and the best research from historians and academics to place the Bard in context. He doesn't get bogged down in what we can't know about Shakespeare, and instead celebrates what we can know. For instance, Shakespeare coined, or brought into common usage, and astounding 2,035 words (think of how difficult it would be, trying to manage without critical, excellent, zany and countless) as well as countless (!) well-turned phrases, like play fast and loose, budge and inch, and vanish into thin air. Best of all, anyone discouraged by the theories ballyhooed about that Shakespeare never actually wrote any of the plays attributed to him will find a friend in Bryson, who doesn't buy those alternate playwright hypotheses either. He dedicates a chapter of this book to exploding those faux-Shakespeare myths, and does it with humor, reason and fascinating facts.
At just under 200 pages, this is a quick, entertaining and very enlightening read -- and I dare you not to learn something interesting from it!