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."