Wednesday 21 November 2012

Shakespeare - Bill Bryson

Straight off the back of my Hollow Crown-fest, I found Bill Bryson's book in a wonderful secret second-hand bookshop in Winchester. I am reluctant to call it a biography, because, as the bookseller commented, everything that anyone knows about William Shakespeare the man, can fit into a four-page brochure. Bill Bryson makes it clear in the opening pages that there is not much to tell - "he is at once the best known and least known of figures," his life chronicled by a few scraps of parish records and legal documents. That being so, why bother with a 200-page book when four pages will do?

Shakespeare's works have captures the minds and hearts of people across the globe for four hundred years, and it is perhaps characteristic of our celebrity-obsessed culture that we want to know every possible detail about the person who created them. Well, prepare to be disappointed. Short of Shakespeare's private diary or love-letters being suddenly unearthed in Stratford - unlikely - all we can really know about him as a person can be found in these snippets and hidden in his writing. And it is dangerous to assume that a writer's work is autobiographical. It's called imagination, a writer's greatest tool. "We can know only what came out of his work," writes Bryson, "never what went into it."

Yet despite having few facts to work with, Bryson's book reveals a lot. Written in a clear, journalistic style, Bryson investigates what we do know about William Shakespeare, chronicling previous efforts to search for the man behind the words. He examines the evidence, scrutinising what we think we know about the Bard and sorting out what is known from what is likely, possible, or myth. What is unusual, Bryson points out, is not how little we know about Shakespeare, but how much has been preserved, compared with his contemporaries.

Though he cannot tell us much about Shakespeare's life that I didn't already know, Bryson fills in the gaps, not with conspiracy theories, but with historical detail, writing of London in the reign of Elizabeth I and then James I, describing the culture of the theatre as context for Shakespeare's life. We can't know the specific details, but we can have an idea of the social and political backdrop against which he wrote.

Bryson is particularly scathing about the popular idea that William Shakespeare was not actually the author of the works bearing his name, which was not even questioned until two hundred years after his death, when anyone who could say yea or nay was out of reach. He points out that the first person to claim Shakespeare was a fraud was a rather dotty woman who based her opinion not on any research or examination of evidence, but by going to places once visited by Francis Bacon, her chosen author, where she "absorbed atmospheres." Erm, whatever that means! It's quite worrying that the theories have gained such credence. Bryson is similarly dismissive of the other theories, comparing the claimants' characters, writing styles and personal backgrounds with those found in Shakespeare's plays. Perhaps the most interesting revelation in the book came near to the end, when Bryson picks out the details within the plays which stem from a rural upbringing, images that would not come so naturally to any of the noblemen (or women) who anti-Stratfordians would cast as the author of these works of genius.

Bryson concludes that "it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so." 

Monday 19 November 2012

Katie's Adventures in Storyland III

Dear blog, I have neglected you for a shameful length of time. I must apologise, once for my silence and again for the lack of a proper review post now. The truth is, I've been stuck in my biggest reading slump for as long as I can remember. All through November I've had the same book on the go, The Stars' Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry. Now, I love Stephen Fry, and can get quite stuck into this book when I pick it up, but am finding 101 things I'd rather do than pick it up. Usually when this happens, I've got more than one book on the go, but I've read only one other thing alongside the Fry, and that a reread of C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair. 

I've not been exiled from Storyland, however. Most of my reading time has been spent in editing my friend Elaine Berry's third Wight Moon book (you can read my review of book one here.) What time has been left - when I've not lost myself in the internet's labyrinth - has been spent catching up on film and TV.

Though finished now in the UK, I spent several Sunday evenings losing myself in series three of ITV's costume soap opera, Downton Abbey. Minor spoilers follow.This is escapism pure and simple, a world I can lose myself in - even if I can see most plot developments a mile off, and usually have one character who causes me to shout at the screen every time they appear. In this season, Matthew bore my wrath for making such a martyr of himself for the first few episodes, and when he came to his senses, Lord Grantham took over. If I hear him say, "So you're against me, too," one more time, I might well have to break something. But I suppose this is part of the enjoyment of it - that, and Maggie Smith's wonderful performance as Lady Violet. (I love Maggie Smith.) But though I could have foreseen most of the plot developments, there was a particularly cruel one that came completely unheralded, astonishingly not even hinted at in the media beforehand. Weirdly, though, I woke up the morning that episode aired having dreamed that I'd read of a certain character's leaving the show and rumours circulating on the internet of them being "killed off." (The internet always hints of people being killed off when the actors leave a show, but it doesn't often happen.) Watching the episode later that day, I off-handedly mentioned this dream, but expected everything would come right in the end. It always does. As I said, Downton's plot twists generally aren't twists at all. But that one time, the plot did not take its usual, predictable and fluffy turn, but went down the route of tragedy.

Although I've never been much into the James Bond franchise, I went to see Skyfall with some friends the other week and was pleasantly surprised. Now, perhaps I have a short attention span, or perhaps films are made too long nowadays, but even in the best movies, there usually comes a point when my mind wanders and I just want to get to the final action. Excluding a moment towards the end when I was silently screaming at the villain "WHY WON'T YOU JUST DIE?!" I was hooked from the prologue right through to the end. The plot is quite basic - Bond hunting down a villain - but the backstory brought an unexpected depth to the characters that kept me emotionally invested. This is a Bond who is not always suave and smooth-talking, who doesn't instantly recover from wounds, an M whose authority is questioned, who is not immune from regret. Some of the action scenes are breathtaking in their sheer audacity, but there is also a back-to-basics approach - why waste time and money coming up with strangely-specific gadgets, when a radio and a gun will do the same job, or a London Underground map will provide the answers? There are new faces to old names - Ben Whishaw is wonderful as a Q who looks like he's just graduated from university, an adorably geeky Q with a cardigan, spectacles and a sharp tongue. ("What were you expecting, an exploding pen?")

Ben Whishaw had come to my attention earlier in the year, when I watched his portrayal of King Richard II in The Hollow Crown, a BBC series of four of Shakespeare's history plays, presented together as a saga. I only watched two installments live, but bought the box set with birthday money, and it has reawakened my love of Shakespeare - the language, the stories, the human experience. Although the Internet has gone wild over Tom Hiddleston, who played Prince Hal, later Henry V, it was Whishaw's Richard that I found fascinating to watch. Softly-spoken, but utterly ruthless, melodramatic and changeable, his Richard was both abhorrent and pitiful. Rory Kinnear, too, must not be forgotten, playing a very understated Henry Bolingbroke who is a man of few words, but says just as much in a look as Richard does in some of his soliloquies. These are two names you must look out for in future, actors who deserve to be huge.

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