How little we can know

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Eminent Lives)In his book Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Eminent Lives), the ever succinct Bill Bryson exposes how little we know and can know about one of the world’s most recognized figures. The writer left only a¬†few bland papers, wills and court fillings. His time left some engravings, some diaries. Of course, there are the plays themselves and the sonnets, mined for biography by many. Much of what is commonly believed is conjecture or invention from a sense of “had to be” that only started long after his death with each generation adding, not examining prior imaginings. Our need to know a man of such influence and the absence of first hand accounts forced their creation and promoted their endurance.

That great bald head. Every one of the three - and there are only three - portrayals of him are open to question. Was this or that lord his patron or do we just repeat the opinions of biographers writing long after his death? Ever look over the new globe theatre in London, the “reproduction” of Shakespeare’s original? One, just one, image of a theatre like it survives. Not it, of one just like it and so you looked around what? And Bryson even finds space for the line of strangely named enthusiasts who believed someone else wrote Shakespeare, that a man from backwater Stratford had no business exploring humanity.

This small book shows once again that the most interesting of history is the making of history itself, exposing her process, that showing how little we can know is the greatest gift of the truly inquisitive.

But the need for fact, the desire to fill in, is so strong that though some readers appreciate this for the expose it is [1] [2], many seem to miss the point altogether, taking it for an enjoyable, succinct biography of the man and his times [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8].

Now if four hundred year old Shakespeare is hard to get to, how much harder is the fourth century?

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