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SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS A STAGE By Bill Bryson, Harper, Rs 325

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare left me feeling baffled. I could not quite understand the point of the book that seemed little more than a compendium of oft-repeated facts about Shakespeare’s plays, his life and times. Is it meant for children then? I wondered. But children, unless quite precocious, would not be interested in knowing, for instance, what a variorum edition means. The book might target the lay reader who is not a student of literature. But I am sure he will find it too dry for his taste, especially when he can opt for books with such promising titles as 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Shakespeare.

To be fair to Bryson, he does say that his book was written not so much because the world wanted another book on Shakespeare, as because the Eminent Lives series did. The idea behind the book, according to him, is “to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record” (that is, from the material available on Shakespeare). But haven’t hundreds of Shakespearean scholars been doing exactly that for years — separating the wheat from the overwhelming chaff of erroneous details about Shakespeare’s life? It is a little tedious to be told all over again what most of us would already know from scholars such as Stanley Wells or Andrew Gurr.

However, if the elemental question of ‘what for’ can be left out, fans of Bryson will find reasons to rejoice over Shakespeare. Bryson’s wry humour gives life to dry facts, for example, when he says that the migration of Shakespeare’s father from Snitterfield to Stratford early in life spared us the ignominy of having to celebrate the “Bard of Snitterfield”.

Bryson has fun at the expense of those critics who claim to know more about Shakespeare than Shakespeare himself did. Heading the list is Charles Wallace, who “developed a sudden and lasting fixation with determining the details of Shakespeare’s life”. The way he went about the task — sifting through every conceivable public record published during Shakespeare’s lifetime to find a mention of his name — did yield important results but left Wallace a bit weak in the head: “He penned extravagant public tributes to himself in the third person and developed paranoid convictions.” As an instance of the outrageous extent to which scholars will go in making leaps of faith, Bryson cites Ivor Brown, who “concluded from mentions of abscesses and other irruptions in Shakespeare’s plays” that the playwright was “plagued with recurrent boils’’.

Bryson concludes his book with the anti-Stratfordians who are out to prove that Shakespeare was not the author of his plays. He notes with relish that most of these critics have names like J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman and George M. Battey. Their ingenious methods, sometimes involving the decoding of supposed cryptograms embedded in the text of the plays, can provide ingredients for books à la The Da Vinci Code but do little to add to our knowledge of Shakespeare.

With the proliferation of ‘scholars’ who seem to find in Shakespeare the perfect subject to trigger off their imagination, Shakespeare has become less of a historical figure and more of an academic obsession. With his penchant for the comic, Bryson delights in drawing attention to the ludicrous forms this obsession can take. I suspect that this was his real reason behind writing this book. For the rest, Shakespeare is ‘neither here nor there’, to use Bryson’s very own phrase.

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