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Sunday, 18 November 2007

Review: Shakespeare (2007) by Bill Bryson.

The book is part of the 'Eminent Lives Series' of HarperPress that also includes Mohammed by Karen Armstrong (an eminent specialist on religion) and Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens (a Vanity Fair columnist). The bias is clearly, in the series, towards accessibility.

Bryson is prolific but clearly spent time on the book, which includes a list of 36 "principle books referred to" on three pages at the back. In brief, he takes the 'new historicist' method and makes it less scholarly than accessible. The 'new historicist' method is a West Coast innovation used in the peripheral material included in my Norton Shakespeare, which Greenblatt edited (although the primary material is from the Oxford edition).

Greenblatt also wrote a monograph (which I reviewed in July 2006) of which I said that the author's "immense scholarship is worn lightly". The same holds for Bryson's book.

But it's got no surprises if you are a dedicated enthusiast. Rather, Bryson includes most of the material you know already, and in an engaging and competent form. You will not, however, come away with much that is new or innovative. Bryson is neither a scholar nor a critic. He keeps his opinions to himself.

This can be a relief if you are more interested in such things as the current temperament of academia regarding Shakespeare who is, it must be honestly admitted, the most-well-known writer in the world.

Bryson tries to assess the relevance of things Shakespeare himself would have traken for granted. The irony in his dedications (to the longer poems and the sonnets) centres around fashion: while those he adulates are now nonentities, the bard's own currency has never been so valuable.

This thing of how posterity handles a poet is also frequently the cause of amusement, as where the high-Romantic literati, troubled by Will's homosexual attitudes in many of the sonnets, ascribed his figures to the ability to imagine love from the point of view of a woman. In this way they could brush under the carpet the unwholesome idea and grant additional cachet to the poet, who was so skillful.

Like Greenblatt, Bryson demonstrates with his easy manner considerable command of a vast amount of material. The simple statistic (there are around 4000 new books on WS every year) is the most telling. James Shapiro's commendation, printed on the jacket, actually sums the book up pretty neatly: "Vivid, unsentimental, witty, and fast-paced." Nothing less would sell, although one must also remark on the size of Bryson's name on the cover: celebrity holds cachet now, where birth did in Will's day.

All-in-all I'd recommend this performance to a potential buyer. It was my own insight that a book of criticism is like the performance of a play. Each successive exponent will be different, and may draw on the gains of earlier ones. For me, when I did a lot of WS reading, to read another's words on this most mercurial of poets, was much like taking a seat in a large theatre.

Bryson pretends that it is a small one, and writes in a frank and yet suggestive manner, that gives much food for thought.

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