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Mstation Book Reviews
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Mon, 01 Sep 2008

Bryson's Shakespeare

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare, Harper Press

Notwithstanding those who dislike Shakespeare, which included the likes of Bernard Shaw, here is a book to revel in if you have any interest whatsoever in the man, the place, or the time. Bryson brings his humour and his research capabilities to bear on what is actually quite a difficult subject. It's difficult because, other than his plays and poetry he didn't leave much of a trail.

Bryson takes us back in time and tells us what is generally known and deals with various arguments about what happened along the way. What we get is a fascinating picture of Elizabethan and Jacobean life in addition to details of what we know about W. Shakespeare.

There are many puzzles along the way and Mstation would like to put in a suggestion about one of them ... One controversial aspect of Shakespeare's writing concerns his sonnets. These beautiful love poems, which Shakespeare apparently hadn't intended to have published, were directed at a fellow male. Consternation! The Victorian English came up with various ways of explaining this ... which included saying that he was practising different voices and points of view, as he regularly did later when writing parts for both male and female. The general consensus these days is that this was not so and they were indeed directed towards a male. The next question is, who was this person? Prime candidate is the Earl of Southampton who apparently was both pretty and effeminate and with whom Shakespeare had some dealings. There have been many objections to this based on the vexing question of class dealings and also having reference to the things said by Shakespeare in his dedications ... which were in the nature of a plea for patronage and, while extremely pleasant, hardly suggest more.

Another tack might be to look at the theatre itself: In those times, the parts of women were played by boys - not tiny little boys mind you, but boys enough that their voices hadn't broken. Another puzzle of Shakepeare's plays was that so many, maybe most, of the really great speeches were for women. This is completely unexpected as one would have thought that these long and complicated parts would have been reserved for the older males. Shakespeare must have had rather special beliefs and feelings about the actor or actors to whom he entrusted these roles. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about who these boys were and what became of them. We don't even know who played these roles at that time. In any case, one of these boys seems a rather likely subject of the sonnets. We should also say that academic opinion leans towards the idea that his love as stated in the sonnets was never consumated.

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