Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

April 6, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today’s most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world’s largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases (“vanish into thin air,” “foregone conclusion,” “one fell swoop”) that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else’s—the beneficiary of Bryson’s genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.


  • Bryson really does have a knack for explaining things in understandable language. I cannot stand dense, scholarly papers, so I appreciated finally having a biography of the Bard that was a) accessible; and b) short.
  • I had no idea that Shakespeare coined so many words and phrases. I think Bryson said he was credited with some 800 additions to the English language. As Bryson pointed out in the text, most people would be thrilled if they added a single new word to the lexicon. Can you imagine adding 800?
  • I liked reading about all the errors and inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s plays. Sure, we hear about him as the greatest playwright ever, blah, blah, blah, but some of his work was decidedly subpar.
  • The last chapter, in which Bryson addresses all the wacky theories held by people who believed Shakespeare wasn’t the author of all these plays, was highly entertaining. I don’t know much about such things, so I wasn’t aware of the depth of some of the lunacy out there. Some of the conspiracies are mind-bogglingly complex, and of course wholly without basis. Occam’s Razor, people.
  • It was cool to read about some of the folks (like that old American couple) that spent years and years of their lives digging through archives in England to try to find even the remotest mention of Shakespeare. Talk about dedication!
  • I can’t believe that six Shakespeare signatures actually survive. That’s pretty amazing, especially considering all the stuff that was lost. What priceless treasures!
  • It was interesting to learn that the portrait we all associate with Shakespeare (the Chandos portrait) might not even be him at all.


  • I have to take issue with the part of the publisher’s description that says, “…Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.” After reading this, I learned a lot of things that *might* or *might not* be true about Shakespeare. As Bryson said himself, there is very little certainty about Shakespeare’s life. So to say that Bryson “reveals” anything in this book is quite a stretch.
  • Some other people have taken issue with Bryson’s scholarship, saying that some of the “facts” he presents are inaccurate. I have no way of verifying one way or the other, but it is at least a bit troubling that so much criticism (from scholars, not professional book reviewers) has arisen.


Reading a biography about William Shakespeare night initially sound like a boring proposition to some, and in the hands of a lesser author, the result might have lived down to those expectations. But Bill Bryson has a way of communicating with the masses, which he displays to great effect in Shakespeare: The World as Stage. This is a quick, interesting read that held my attention from beginning to end. I give it 5 stars out of 5.

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