A telling glance at one of history’s most famously unknowable figures.
As sometimes happens with expatriates, journalist Bryson (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, 2006, etc.) often turned his attention to his native America during his 20-year residence in England (Made in America, 1995, etc.). Apparently he’s now been back home long enough to look the other way in this 12th volume in James Atlas’s well-received Eminent Lives series. And who better fits the bill for this assortment of brief biographies than Shakespeare, the literary behemoth who practically defines the Western canon yet boasts a CV that could hardly be slimmer. As the typically wry Bryson observes, “It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person.…faced with a wealth of text but a poverty of context, scholars have focused obsessively on what they can know.” Bryson is just as happy to point out what we can’t. To him, Shakespeare is the “literary equivalent of an electron—forever there and not there.” Indeed, he makes so much of the fact that so much has been made from the singularly few known facts of the Bard’s life that one might say this thin volume’s raison d’être is to identify the many paradoxes surrounding all things Shakespeare, which Bryson candidly illuminates in several deft turns of phrase. That is as good a tack as any to take in this sort of Cliffs Notes–style overview of the rich afterlife and times of Shakespeare, recognized as great, Bryson claims, for his “positive and palpable appreciation of the transfixing power of language”—a point on which even those who don’t believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare would agree, and a trait he happens to share with his biographer.
Shakespeare redux for the common reader.