William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.
Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.
Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.
What a match: Bill Bryson, expat American with a well-known love of the English language (see The Mother Tongue, 1990), takes on the life of Will Shakespeare (1564-1616), with his exceedingly well known ability to shape that language into works of genius. The result is a triumph of patience and insight over the obstacle of few facts. We know so little about the great poet and playwright that Bryson manages to indulge some of the wackier speculations, if only for sport. But his touch is, as usual, light and genial. Sifting through the slim evidence of Shakespeare's life, Bryson avoids "the urge to switch from conjunctive to indicative" that characterizes so many of the previous biographers. Using the best scholars and critics to amplify his own amateur research, he takes us to both the National Archives in London -- where he describes the mess that is 16th-century orthography -- and the basement of the Folger Library's collection of First Folios. This visit occasions Bryson's smart excursus on early bookmaking and allows him to celebrate the real heroes of Shakespeare's afterlife: the friends who preserved most of his plays in that first collected edition, itself the Holy Grail of Shakespeare scholarship. The final chapter, a survey of the silly debunkers of Shakespeare's authorship, is a real hoot, with Bryson at his wittiest. Not since Marchette Chute's somewhat prudish Shakespeare of London (1949) have we had such a succinct, reliable, and enjoyable Shakespeare bio for general readers. Bryson penetrates the mystery that was the life -- for the majesty that is the work. --Thomas De Pietro