In preparation for teaching Romeo and Juliet (and participating in the Globe Education Academy), I felt that I should read a biography of William Shakespeare. Of course, when looking for a biography to read, I turned immediately to Bill Bryson.
Bill Bryson is the author that I find incredibly entertaining. His memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid comically described his life growing up as a self-thought-of super hero in 1950s Iowa. When reading his travel book Notes from a Small Island, I felt like I was traveling around England with a hilariously grumpy older gentleman. Who else would I want to teach me what little we know about the man named William Shakespeare?
And little we know indeed. There are only three likenesses of Shakespeare in existence…maybe: “two that aren’t very good by artist working years after his death and one that is rather more compelling as a portrait but that may well be of someone else altogether” (7). Of all the words he left us, only fourteen remain in his own hand (in his six remaining signatures and the words “by me” on his will). No one is really sure how best to spell his name. In those six signatures, they are not spelled the same way twice: Willm Shaksp, William Shakespe, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere, and William Shakspeare. He didn’t even use the spelling that we use today. There are only a few days where we can determine where he was with absolute certainty. In fact, “we have no record at all of his whereabouts for the eight critical years when he left his wife and three young children in Stratford and became, with almost impossible swiftness, a successful playwright in London” (9). We don’t even know which of his plays he wrote first.
Given what little we know about the actual man, Bryson does a fantastic job establishing the historical context with which to understand the world into which Shakespeare was born, lived in, and wrote. What I had never realized was how much Shakespeare “borrowed” from other texts. In a paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw, Bryson writes that “Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first” (99). But then, the same is true of most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Apparently, “to Elizabethan playwrights plots and characters were common property” (99). There was a Hamlet play–now lost–before Hamlet. Romeo and Juliet (or to use it’s original title Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. More surprising–and “slightly more jarring to modern sensibilities”–was the fact that Shakespeare had a small “habit of lifting passages of text almost verbatim from other sources and dropping them into his plays” (100). Compare the following lines:
- From Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: “Hola, ye pampered jades of Asia/What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?”
- From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2: “And hollow pampered jades of Asia/Which cannot go but thirty miles a day.”
With the great demand for new plays–you needed to have new material to keep the customers coming–it’s no wonder that short-cuts would be taken. Companies like the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were performing 5-6 plays per week, and “few plays managed as many as ten performances per year” (79).
Bryson dedicates an entire chapter to debunking the theory that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been the author of such great works. Over the years, 50+ candidates have been offered up as the possible “true” Bard. Bryson finds this preposterous, as Shakespeare is identified in many contemporary documents as the author of his own works. Looking at all of the major candidates–from Francis Bacon to Edward deVere to Christopher Marlowe–Bryson writes, “These people must have been incredibly gifted–to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward” (195).
Of course, while reading I started to think about how I wanted to bring this information into my classroom. I’m thinking about creating a gallery walk to help establish the historical context in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, using excerpts from Bryson’s book, useful websites (If you know of any, please post them in the comment section below!), photos, videos, etc.