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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 14 September 2007
This is a very entertaining and informative account of the life and works of William Shakespere. Although the book is short, there is much fascinating information packed into it. I found it particularly fascinating to read about the huge contribution Shakespeare made to the development of the English language, and the large number of words now in common usage that were originally coined by him. Many myths about Shakespeare are cheeerfuly debunked by Mr Bryson, like the one about his work as an author never being mentioned in his lifetime, and the one about less being known about him than other contemporary dramatists (apparently more is known about Shakespeare than any of the others). The final chapter, in which Mr Bryson cheerfuly disposes of the fantasies of those who claim that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, is particularly entertaining.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I wish it had been longer, since Bill Bryson writes about his subject so entertainingly. However, Mr Bryson has evidentl taken to heart Shakespeare's own aphorism "brevity is the soul of wit."
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on 27 September 2007
This is an easily readable and short life of Shakespeare written for a series called "Eminent Lives" and strangely coming after books on George Balanchine and George Crick!! In it Bill Bryson, in his inimitable witty style, tells us how little is known of WS's life but then goes on to examine what others have conjectured about it, pouring scorn on so many of the theories. I have read several attempts at Shakespeare biographies but still learned something from this [especially on the Bard's neologisms] but my favourite was the final debunking of the attempts to say the plays were written by someone else. Bryson does this so amusingly [can it be true that of the 5000 books written to prove Shakespeare's plays were written by someone other than Shakespeare, three were by Messers Looney, Silliman and Battey?!] that I was actually laughing as I read it. For example, on the claims for Marlowe to have been the real Shakespeare, Bryson writes "He was the right age ..., had the requisite talent and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work."

So, Bryson has produced just what his publishers wanted, a brief biography that anyone can read and learn from, which appears both learned and well researched on the one hand, but also enjoyable and amusing on the other.
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This book is well worth buying and is an interesting and enjoyable read. Bill Bryson is always worth reading, his common sense and down to earth style are always entertaining. What better subject could he have than our greatest writer ? So the book is onto a winner and delivers. I found it an easy and diverting read on holiday. I learned things I didn't know, about Shakespeare's "missing periods", about his relationship with Anne, about the extent to which he was a Jacobean as much as an Elizabethan writer. I particularly liked the debunking of those who claim that Shakespeare didn't write "Shakespeare".

So why only three stars? Well, the book comes across exactly as what it is, a commission. "Bill, could you write us a brief book about Shakespeare?" As such it firstly it feels a bit cobbled together, a bit rushed off. Secondly it is rather lacking in depth. Thirdly it rather lacks structure jumping erractically between the specifics of Shakespeare's life and the generalities of the world around him.

I am probably being over critical, in that the book does exactly what it says on the tin and is well worth a read. I just feel that if the drive to write the book had come from Bill Bryson rather than being a commission, the end result would have been a deeper more satisfying work.

So in summary, recommended as a good light read, just don't expect too much.
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VINE VOICEon 11 April 2008
I bought this book because I'm a fan of Bill Bryson and history books generally. (And because it was half price, but that is neither here nor there.) I must stress that my only interest in Shakespeare is as an historical figure living in interesting times. That's why I bought it. His work is for far more literate and genteel people! But I absolutely loved this book. For what it is -- a witty introduction and guide to the whole Shakespeare experience! -- I thought it was faultless. Bryson tells us what we need to know and what we need to take with a pinch of salt (which turns out to be nearly everything!) and he does it in his own inimitable avuncular style. I haven't enjoyed a book so much (or felt so intellectual!) for a long time. So Bryson's done a good job. However, I have a bone to pick with the publishers. Why no illustrations? No portraits (admittedly there are no 'cast-iron' ones), no facsimiles of the oft-cited historical documents or scratchy signatures, no quaint maps. Nothing. I don't know why this happens with Bryson particularly, but I noticed it too in his A Short History of Nearly Everything. Perhaps they were trying to avoid tired old cliches. But I like to rest every so often and a picture can be good to mull over and collect thoughts.
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on 18 September 2007
Short but enjoyable biography of Britains foremost writer. Bryson wisely stays away from pointless conjecture and unfounded speculation about The Bard and sticks to the facts scarce though they are. He concentrates instead what is known from records and contemporaries. Recommended.
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on 16 November 2007
At one point Bryson asks the listener to imagine how wonderful it must have been to have been able to see Shakespeare on stage acting and speaking his own work. Listening to the author read his own work here I concluded it might not have been that great.

I have very many Bryson audio CDs and enjoy them all, but this suffers from a delivery that seldom rises above a drone. Frankly, he sounds like he had a heavy cold.

That said - and it does take a bit of getting over - the content is good. As with 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' it provides the listener with a very accessible and entertaining way into and through a lot of information and research.

I suspect Shakespeare experts will learn little, but if, like me, you studied a few plays at school and watch the odd - and some decidedly odd - movie adaptation then this will easily fascinate you.
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Iowa-raised and presumably corn-fed Bill Bryson is perhaps best known for his humorous travel essays about such places as England (NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND), Australia (IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY), the Appalachian Trail (A WALK IN THE WOODS), rural America (THE LOST CONTINENT), and, well, just about everywhere you can think of (A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING). His love of England, which I share, is what originally marked him as one of my favorite authors.

As one who obviously enjoys stringing words together and, moreover, has written books on the subject (THE MOTHER TONGUE and BRYSON'S DICTIONARY OF TROUBLESOME WORDS), it's not terribly surprising that Bill has combined his affections for England and its language in a volume about its greatest (play)writer, SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS STAGE. And, of course, they're both named William.

Bryson admits up front that there's very little in the way of hard facts about William Shakespeare. But, in Bill's hands, that plus what can be deduced or inferred expands to a very satisfying and entertaining volume even for the culturally destitute reader who may not be a aficionado of the Bard's stuff. Like myself.

Bill sets the stage, so to speak, with a cursory examination of the English period contemporary with his subject: the monarchy of Elizabeth I, certain London structures (London Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral), the Thames, religious turmoil, public pastimes, the state of the London theater scene, the business of being a playwright, the structure of contemporary plays, and the art of bookbinding. With those considerations functioning as a contextual backdrop, the products of Shakespeare's life that can be directly studied - his parentage, plays, poetry, written vocabulary, will, and other rare public records in which he's mentioned - serve to flesh out the man to the extent possible. There's even a final chapter on the historical and modern claimants to the authorship of Shakespeare's works, which claims some otherwise accomplished people take seriously. (Just as the current Royal Family had Princess Di murdered. You think?)

The author's paramount strength is the congeniality of his dialogue with his readers. He could, no doubt, make the description of fabricating wire hangers amusing, interesting, and instructive. SHAKESPEARE isn't Bill's best work, perhaps because the scope of the subject matter is so narrow, but it does deserve a place on the bookshelves of his fans.
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on 12 November 2007
Bryson's quick wit and sharp sense of irony is displayed in perfect form when discussing the worlds favourite playwrite! The book was a pleasure to read and there were laughs on almost every page while none of the information within the book is sacrificed for comedic purposes. A very infromative book that was also highly entertaining - my only complaint is that it's a too short but other than that well worth reading!
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VINE VOICEon 5 May 2016
The 400th anniversary of the Bard's death has prompted me to read a number of Shakespeare-themed books and this fairly short biography by Bill Bryson is the latest. It covers what we actually know about the life of Shakespeare, which is comparatively very little (though this is still more than we know about the lives of most of his contemporary authors), and about the world in which he thrived at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. One point that emerges clearly is how lucky we are to have nearly all his plays surviving, thanks to his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell who compiled the First Folio of his plays a few years after his death, and without whose endeavours we would probably lack half of his plays entirely. In the final two chapters, the author considers Shakespeare's legacy and the extraordinary claims of those who contend that Shakespeare did not really write his own plays, a claim that no contemporary ever made and that was not made by anyone until nearly two centuries after his death. This book is not a detailed literary or academic biography, but it covers the background to Shakespeare's life and times in a way that is likely to appeal to a wide range of readers. Very good.
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Like so many others I always look forward to a new Bill Bryson, but this one was rather strange. A small volume, the author spends most of it telling us that virtually nothing is known about our greatest playwright and then continues to prove it throughout the text.

So we skip over many lost years and hurtle from his productive period to his death in a matter of pages seemingly skipping over where he was, who he was, how he wrote, where he wrote, why he wrote, what he wrote and even how he died.

Shakespeare is a mystery and an enigma - Bryson tells us this on numerous occasions and this book falls into the same slot. It's almost as if he has decided to write a book about the man and then found out that there is very little to write.

That doesn't detract from the entertaining way Bryson sets the historical context of the times but we always return to the same premise - little or nothing is known about the man, his movements, his life, his family and so we go on. If Bryson went in search of Shakespeare he failed to find him. Much of the book debunks various theories. Certainly it isn't one to read if you want to learn about Shakespeare. It is one to read if you want to learn a little about Elizabethan and Jacobean England and that's really all there is to say about a good idea that just leaves you wanting more facts.
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