Bill Bryson is not a Shakespeare scholar, and his brief biography of Shakespeare (published 2007 for HarperCollins as part of the Eminent Lives series) reflects that. The tone of the book is light, accessible, and succinct. Bryson’s approach to the Bard was to admit the gaps in his life and rather focus on what we do know, that being the era he lived in, Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
For the casual reader interested in knowing a little bit about the Bard, including knowing just how much we don’t know, Shakespeare: The World as Stage will probably satisfy. In less than 200 pages, one gets a general overview of the possibilities for how Shakespeare’s life panned out, for some possible reasons he knew what he was writing about, and some of the controversies and influences his writing made on the culture of the world. It was a very quick and easy read and to be honest, I love the idea of reading more brief biographies in the Eminent Lives series. Those 600+ page biographies really take a long time to get through.
However, as approachable and easy-to-read as Bryson’s book was, I was disappointed. I have heard such great things about Bryson’s biography of the Bard that I was very excited to dive in to it. But the general feel of the book was far from satisfying for me.
From the beginning, I felt Bryson was simply summarizing the scholars’ biographies of Shakespeare and adding his conclusions and opinions on top of those summations. Bryson never referenced his quotes, facts, and opinions with clear endnotes (although he does provide a selected bibliography at the end). Although he sounds very persuasive in his claims and opinions, the fact is that he is not a Shakespeare scholar as the experts he’s summarizing.
Don’t get me wrong: it was nice to read a summary of other Shakespeare scholars’ conclusions. However, Bryson doesn’t clarify when he switches to his own opinions. It’s just all his words, no references. Obviously, each writer of a biography has his or her own biases: no one is immune. But Bryson just seems so unqualified to give his opinion I wondered why he was selected for the job.
In sum, while Bryson’s well written and engaging account of Shakespeare’s life definitely has a place for a casual reader interested in Shakespeare, it’s certainly not a scholarly work, and one I’d personally hesitate to recommend to someone wanting to learn about Shakespeare. I look forward to reading a biography that is well documented, and I wouldn’t mind reading a few such biographies to get a better picture of the man known as the Bard. Shakespeare’s influence is important enough to my modern culture to give him the benefit of professional and scholarly attention, not just a light-hearted summation of the true scholarship out there.