Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition
By Bill Bryson
HarperCollins; $29.99, cloth
ISBN 978-0-06-196532-6

Let’s face it, we do not have much documentary evidence of William Shakespeare’s life, and where evidence fails us, legend takes hold.

Bill Bryson discusses what we know, what we speculate, and what has been misconstrued in his updated edition of the great writer’s biography, Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition. The book itself is a work of art, with heavy paper and loads of drawings, illustrations, and a significant bibliography. Still, the ground Bryson tills has been planted and harvested before, yet one gets the feeling that this is an up-to-the-minute biography, and Bryson himself admits in the preface that “For somebody who has been dead for nearly four hundred years, William Shakespeare remains awfully active.” He refers, of course, to the endless reams of scholarship and investigation published each year about the man, the myth and the legend.

Bryson sets off with the three revisions discovered since the volume was first published. The first is Shakespeare’s likeness, a subject of much speculation over the years. Everyone has seen the folio engraving of him, but Bryson reveals that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon has given us a definitive portrait of Shakespeare, and it is not the one we know. This image is known as the Cobbe portrait because for many years it has been displayed in the Cobbe family’s ancestral home.

The other two noteworthy events are the discovery of the foundation of “London’s first purpose-built theatre on the site of a disused warehouse in Shoreditch” dating from 1576 and the recovery of yet another folio of plays stolen from the Durham University library.

Bryson takes us through Shakespeare’s life and times. The biography is well-researched, and covers the major points of interest. What really wins the day, however, are the illustrations. Bryson draws from a plethora of sources, and the art definitely enhances the history, and makes purchasing the book worth the rather steep cover price.

The book is a good overview of Shakespeare’s life. Certainly there are other more scholarly and detailed approaches, but this is a good place to begin a study of his works and history. The book’s value is really more decorative than studious, as other writers have delved more deeply into a critical analysis of the plays and sonnets. I would use this volume as an illustrated teaching tool. Bryson also does a good job of updating what we know with the latest ideas about Shakespeare’s life and times.

It is amazing to me that someone who wrote almost a half of millennium ago could still be read in classrooms across the world today. And the performances of Shakespeare’s work continue, in almost every language and on every continent. Part of my class study of Romeo and Juliet includes a recitation of the balcony scene in Armenian. I even remember a line in one of the Star Trek films that extols the virtue of Shakespeare’s words in Klingon, demonstrating that in a science fiction future, Shakespeare’s plays would spread to other planets throughout the galaxy. One can only hope this will come true some day. Until then, Shakespeare remains an enigma as well as a box office draw. And that makes him a truly remarkable artist.

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