Bryson’s Folly – 1

Looking through Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World as Stage, published in 2007, I couldn’t help wondering how he managed to get through writing it without recognizing his own contradictory statements and outright falsehoods, not to mention his snide, snickering dissimulation.  For example, he opens his ninth and final chapter, Claimants, exclaiming, “There is an extraordinary – seemingly an insatiable – urge on the part of quite a number of people to believe that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone other than William Shakespeare.”

Okay, hold on, sir!  First of all, Bill, the folks with this “insatiable urge” happen to be people with insatiable curiosity — something you should admire and applaud rather than deride.  These people, who happen to love Shakespeare, are curious about his character as a person and about his life. Such open-minded, adventurous spirit is something you might want to encourage, especially in young people, in students; you don’t want to stifle such curiosity, do you?

But more important is that you know darn well, Mr. Bryson, that you’re begging the question — assuming the truth of the very point being challenged! As you certainly know, quite a number of people believe that these plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet and King Lear were written by someone using “William Shakespeare” as a pen name!

And these same people can see no good reason to believe that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon was that someone.  Yes, the name “Shakespeare” was printed on the narrative poems and plays, but never during the Stratford man’s lifetime was he ever connected to that name or was that name ever connected to him. Up to his death in 1616 (and for years afterward) he can be identified only as a businessman — money lender, grain dealer, property buyer — and never, not once, identified as a writer.

So these genuinely curious folks don’t believe that William Shakespeare was “someone other than William Shakespeare” — that’s a tiresome joke; but they do question whether the true writer was the guy who’s been accepted by tradition.  Accepted blindly.  If that tradition had never existed and you were given all the known facts about the Stratford man, all the evidence related to his life, you would never decide he must have been one of the greatest literary artists and intellects in the history of humankind.

Bryson appears to use a tactic of conceding points only to come right back and press a buzzer – zap! – indicating that none of them makes a difference, that they can be just swept off the table.  For example, he mentions that all the records involving the Stratford man consist of “baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds, writs of attachment, court records” and so on.

“In consequence,” he  writes, “there remains an enormous amount that we don’t know about William Shakespeare … We don’t know if he ever left England.  We don’t know who his principal companions were or how he amused himself … We have no record at all of his whereabouts for the eight critical years when he left his wife and three young children in Stratford and became, with almost impossible swiftness, a successful playwright in London.”

Shakespeare, Bryson admits, “is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron – forever there and not there … In fact it cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing – not a scrap, not a mote – that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings or beliefs as a private person.  We can know only what came out of his work…”  (Emphases added.)

Wow.  Right on!  And now here comes the buzzer.  Suddenly Bryson quotes an archivist who repeats a falsehood that has been uttered over and over for generations:

“In fact we know more about Shakespeare than about almost any other dramatist of his age.”


No, no, no, that’s not true, sir, no we don’t!  I refer you to Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography by Diana Price, published in 2001, wherein she demolishes that oft-repeated nonsense.  The truth is that, so long as we believe in the myth of the Stratford man, we shall continue to know less about Shakespeare than about any other dramatist of his age.

We’ve just begun to walk this path.  Yes, we’ll get back to other orthodox scholars (such as James Shapiro) in due time…

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. […] do so now. These two commentaries (“Bravo Bryson” from  Stratfordian Terry Gray and “Bryson’s Folly” from Oxfordian Hank Whittemore) are a neat little capsule summary of the state of the authorship […]

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