I’ve just finished Book #7, Shakespeare, by Bill Bryson. More specific comments about the book itself are at the end of this post, but the book made me think about something. What becomes very clear after reading this slim volume is that we know very little about Shakespeare the man, but compared to other equally notable poets/playwrights of his time, we know a lot. It’s also clear that it is really no more than a fluke that we still have so much of his work. Bryson states that of the 230 surviving plays from the period, a whopping 15% of them are Shakespeare’s. Not to mention the sonnets.
So is Shakespeare so famous because of the quality of his writing, or because so much of it (almost all of it that we’re aware of, in fact) has survived?
Although the Bard might not be to everyone’s taste, and his writing is certainly not without flaws, I don’t think anybody can argue that his plays and sonnets are both powerful and insightful, and the man knew how to turn a phrase for sure. But there are other writers of the time who are arguably as skilled. There are writers who were more famous than Shakespeare while he was alive and for a long time afterwards. Ben Jonson was just as popular or more as Shakespeare until the 18th century. His work survives as well, but only because he published it himself (an unusual step; Shakespeare’s work was published by two of his colleagues after his death). There are many other playwrights of the time whose work does not survive or only partially survives. If we had forty-some plays by any other playwright, would they be just as famous?
Or is it something about ye olde William? I’ve read pretty close to all of his plays, and while I’m no expert I’ve read a few plays by his contemporaries too, and I have to say — I think it’s him. There’s just something about his writing. It’s the rhythm, it’s the insight, it’s the pictures he paints and the insidious quality that gets under your skin. The other guys — their work has more of a blunt-instrument quality, while Shakespeare’s writing is a delicate instrument, capable of making fine, bloodless cuts.
As for this book, it’s part of a series and not terribly consequential although it’s a good roundup of a lot of scholarly work throughout the ages. It also seems like something of a dry run for Bryson’s At Home, because a lot of the information about the daily lives of Elizabethan and Jacobean people is repeated there. Interesting enough as lunchtime reading but nothing revolutionary.
Although it did get me thinking deep thoughts about the Bard, so draw your own conclusions.