Thursday, 19 January 2012

Well, this is awkward.

I've just finished reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare and I don't even know  for sure who the man on the left is, or how to spell his name properly (assuming it is a picture of who we think it is!). But that is he, Willm Shaksp, William Shakespe, Wm Shakspe, William Shakespere, Willm Shakespere, YHWH, or as we most commonly know him, William Shakespeare: "Ever a shadow, even in his own biography," Bryson writes.

I was looking at Katherine's January prompt for the Classics Challenge (and as, right now, I'm not re-reading his plays this isn't my response to her challenge, it's a response to Allie's 'Shakespeare Reading Month') and thinking how difficult it would be to answer some of her first questions. What does he look like? Not 100% sure. When was he born? I can tell you when he was baptised (26th April)... He is so fascinating to me because there are so many unanswered 'basic' questions.

Recently, very recently, I've had a bit of a self-imposed block on searching for biographical information on the authors I love or am reading. I'm starting to agree with Winterson and Faulks, for one: it does seem an almost unnecessary distraction. I know that it can enrich your favourite novels, and I still do believe it is human nature to want to know at least something of the human being that produced this great literature. But it is also fraught with danger. It occurred to me I ought to write about Dickens for Katherine's Classic Challenge: I am, as you know, working through his major works and thoroughly enjoying Fig and Thistle's Dickens Month, and if you follow me on Twitter, you'll know just how much I've enjoyed Great Expectations and David Copperfield, perhaps not so much Pickwick Papers, and how I'm just getting started with Bleak House. A few days ago I bought second hand copies of Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Domeby and Sons, and Little Dorrit, and today I bought The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, there's only one missing: Barnaby Rudge. This, from the lady who hated Dickens not that long ago, I am now reformed and am entirely focused on his novels. This is exciting: this challenge, reading his major works, it is truly thrilling. But, from what I can gather? Mr. Dickens? Not such a nice chap. 

But, it doesn't matter: it doesn't spoil a thing. How? Because I don't know why he wasn't such a nice chap. I've just been told in fairly vague terms. I don't want to know, and I don't see why, at this stage, I have to. So, I am not so much skimming people's 'Charles Dickens: the man' posts as entirely skipping them. I can't even say that when I finish this challenge I'll hunt them out. I just don't want to know.

But with Shakespeare (you see how I'm trying to write about Mr. Bill and I'm getting into Mr. D?): it doesn't matter. I have read his complete works, and largely, I didn't care for them. At best, I liked a few (and will perhaps write in the coming weeks, though keep in mind I have only just finished writing reading his complete works), so if you tell me he kicked puppies, you won't have spoilt him for me. But the fact is, we don't know if he kicked puppies, or much else. William Shakespeare is an enigma. All we really have is his writing, and even then some has been lost, and some people claim he didn't even write it in the first place! How can you not be intrigued? This man, the cornerstone of English Literature, is elusive. I quote again, "Ever a shadow even in his own biography". It is this that drives people to obsession. Even knowing how ridiculous it is, I've found myself having little "Shakespeare" sessions on Twitter, Tumblr, and the WWW just to find some answers, answers that I find reasonable even if it can't be known. The "second best bed": this got me, it really did: Shakespeare in his will wrote, "I give unto my wife my second-best bed..." How do you interpret that? Was it the slap in the face it seems to be, or, as some believe, meaning the marital bed, as the best bed was kept for guests? This: the vast room for interpretation is what is gripping, what must send some Shakespeare scholars insane, and what must have led Charles and Hulda Wallace in the early 20th Century to move from America to London to devote a part of their lives to root through the ten million or so records just to shed a little light (which, as it happens, they did). It is little wonder Shakespeare is the most written about writer. Indeed, he was prolific, but no match to what has been written about him. 

As for Bryson's biography: for me, it is perfect. He is not a Shakespeare scholar, and he is not trying to present his interpretation of the so-called facts, he is simply navigating himself and us through the maze. This is my approach to literature: I am no scholar, and have no degrees, although I do have an A' Level (I got a B). I am simply wandering through it all, reading what I want when inspiration strikes. And I make mistakes, of course. Some books I have read have entirely left my consciousness, if they were ever truly there in the first place. So, for me, reading Bryson was ideal because he was searching as I am searching. I loved it as I loved Notes From A Small Island: it sparkles. I'm looking forward to reading more Bryson.

And, as it happens, I am looking forward also to reading a little more about William Shakespeare. Just because I didn't enjoy most of his plays doesn't mean I have no interest, far from it. It's almost like Finnegans Wake: there is something to it all, and I want to find it.


  1. Absolutely agree with you about Bryson's biography- it's so sharp and funny but also filled with only facts and nothing he's just chosen to make up. It's great. I'm sad you didn't like many of Shakespeare's plays though- I've only read one I don't like so far (The Taming of the Shrew) and I kind of adore him!

    Also, I'm intrigued/encouraged by your newfound Dickens love- I've hated/been scared of him for the longest time, but maybe he's not that bad..? I'm thinking of just getting the Penguin Clothbound editions of his books because they're so pretty, and then I'll *have* to read them!

  2. Oh, I really want those clothbound editions!

    What have you read by him? My first was Hard Times, but Oliver Twist was my way in :)

  3. I love this post. Bryson had me laughing out loud with several passages- the last chapter of the book being a prime example-, but it also made me so curious about Shakespeare's life. I really had no idea how little the world knows about him until I read this biography.
    Oh, the Shakespeare portrait that might not even be a Shakespeare portrait. It was Bryson the one who said it might be Queen Elizabeth's portrait, wasn't he? It's an 'ouch' detail all around.

  4. You're so right about Bryson! He makes it clear what (few) facts we have about Shakespeare and then all of the suppositions that people make from those.

    I'm sorry your disliking so many plays. The only one I've read that I really don't like is Cymbeline and the second half of Taming

  5. Bryson is amazing quite simply. Also read Notes from a Small Island, now on look out for more :)

    And Red - maybe I was unfair. If I looked over my list, I bet I liked more than I remember. I think I remember liking Cymbeline, and I liked Taming, but urgh. Yeah. I know why you didn't like it, and I shouldn't have liked it. I liked Measure for Measure and Timon... I'm remembering a few I liked as I think. I wish I had have finished my Complete Works challenge a little earlier, because I'm just not ready to re-visit for Shakespeare month! Need a longer gap :)



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