Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: HarperPerennial (1 April 2008)
Do we really need yet another book about Shakespeare? Well, there are an awful lot of books out there with totally lunatic ideas about old Bill, and Bryson has taken it upon himself to give a good, clear and lucid account of what is actually known about the playwright.
The answer is, not a lot. There's an awful lot of speculation (mainly starting from a lunatic American woman named Bacon who decided that Shakespeare was really written by his contemporary and her namesake Bacon). But if you actually go out and look at the actual evidence, then there's very little. That's not surprising - very little documentation survives from that era, and since Shakespeare's works weren't actually particularly revered in the decades after his death, nobody was particularly interested in chronicling his life.
(For a creative genius to be under appreciated for a few generations is not unknown - when I was young, the classical composer was Beethoven. Mozart? Who? Oh yeah, him.)
So, Bryson presents this account with a gratifying attention to the boundaries of what is known. On the other hand, he's robustly dismissive of the stupidities of those who, purporting a lack of evidence that the plays of Shakespeare weren't written by the man whose actual name was written on their title pages, attribute them to others, on zero evidence at all.
All in all, this book shouldn't be necessary. On the other hand, there's all sorts of daft stuff out there, from 1421 to the Da Vinci Code, so having a sensible person actually putting forward the sensible view with the sensible evidence therefore makes a nice change. Brief, but illuminating.