There is no doubt that Bill Bryson is a good writer, if you place any value on the ability to be funny, accessible and engaging. Whilst harbouring the occasional reservation about his seeming willingnesss to sacrifice truth for the sake of a good one-liner, I have thoroughly enjoyed my previous encounters with Bryson. Unfortunately, though, this book as all the hallmarks of being hastily assembled and poorly edited. Perhaps I am being over-sensitive as this is a subject I already knew a little about, but in spite of it bringing together some interesting facts about Shakespeare and his theatre, it contains an astonishing number of repetitions and some assumptions about theatre history that are startling simplistic to the point of being misleading. For example, whilst he rightly identifies a change of acting styles as being a feature of the Elizabethan theatre, he then proceeds to assert that Shakespeare was more naturalistic (a concept that was not developed for another 300 years) than most. I thought this was pretty shoddy stuff. At other times he expresses surprise at certain Elizabethan theatre practices, as if theatre ought to have been made then in exactly the way it is made now. All this reveals a certain naivety and a lack of sophistication. And so much of the book (and it’s a short book at that) seems to be spent telling us about how we cannot know anything about Shakespeare for certain.
The best chapter is the last one, where Bryson demolishes the conspiracy theorists who claim Shakespeare’s plays were written by anybody from Francis Bacon to the Earl of Oxford. This is Bryson at his best, as he tears them apart with his customary wit. The rest, though, left me with the impression that he has spoken to a few experts over a cup of tea and has pieced the rest together from a position of relative ignorance. At times he seems very unsure of himself and curiously naive. This is certainly not the authoritative and confident voice that is found in his other writing.
Before I started reading this book, I was unsure whether I might be unable to count this in my annual tally (I don’t count work-related books), but in the end this cannot be counted as a book of scholarship, except of the very poorest quality. OK, perhaps I’m being unduly critical, but I’m left wondering whether all his books are actually this thin and I just haven’t noticed it before.
To finish on a positive note, though, Phillip asked in an earlier comment, whether or not I would be reading any non-fiction. At least I’ve fulfilled that request.