Thursday, February 26, 2009

The play's the thing

I've started reading my Christmas present books, beginning with Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare in the Eminent Lives series. It's well written (of course, Bryson hasn't disappointed me yet), amusing and erudite. The book is a kind of meta-biography, it talks about how we know what we think we know about Shakespeare, and how little is actually documented of the life of a fairly significant person of that time. There are several stretches of up to five years where there is no evidence that Shakespeare was alive at all, bar that he demonstrably did something later on. (On the other hand, it is also true that we know more about him than almost anyone else who was alive then.)

Here's Bryson talking about Shakespeare's "Globe" theatre in Southwark:
The Globe itself didn't last long... But what a few years they were. No theatre — perhaps no human enterprise — has seen more glory in only a decade or so than the Globe during its first manifestation. For Shakespeare this period marked a burst of creative brilliance unparalleled in English literature. One after another, plays of unrivalled majesty dropped from his quill: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra.

We thrill at these plays now, but what must it have been like when they were brand new, when all their references were timely and sharply apt, and all the words never before heard? Imagine what it must have been like to watch Macbeth without knowing the outcome, to be part of a hushed audience hearing Hamlet's soliloquoy for the first time, to witness Shakespeare speaking his own lines. There cannot have been, anywhere in history, many more favoured places than this.

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Blogger Serena said...

I love Bill Bryson, and I know the point of those books is to be short, but I was a bit disappointed at how short and how sketchy his Shakespeare bio was... I had hardly started it and it was over!

I always enjoy spending time with Bryson, but I didn't feel I came away with much.

February 27, 2009 at 5:17:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger JoeinVegas said...

That would have been interesting, to have been there.

February 27, 2009 at 10:33:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Zhoen said...

Have you seen Michael Woods' In Search of Shakespeare?

February 28, 2009 at 4:37:00 a.m. GMT+1  

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