Shakespeare: World as Stage by Bill Bryson

When the Cedar City Arts Council (CCAC) selected a Bill Bryson book for the September discussion I was eager to begin reading. After discovering the book was a biography on Shakespeare I thought the choice of author was intriguing. Harper Collins put together a series of short biographies on historical persons of great influence and asked Bryson to write about Shakespeare. After reading the book I am sure Harper Collins chose Bryson in hopes to add some humor to the life of dear old William. Not that the life story of the greatest play write in history is boring, it may have been or it may not have been, but the definite truth is that we simply do not know what type of life he lived or what kind of person he was. Contrary to popular believe we do not even know for sure what he looked like.  Because of our exceeding lack of knowledge concerning William Shakespeare’s life, Bryson took the approach of describing, the best way possible with the limited amount of information provided, the lifestyle of English theatrical society in the late 1500’s to early 1600’s. There were times throughout the book when I was irritated by the complete and utter lack of solid fact we have about a subject which claims to have such a vast amount of ‘experts’. I congratulate Bryson for stating the reality that there really aren’t that many ‘facts’ to learn; unlike other biographers who spend page after page on speculation, theory, and flat out guessing.  

The issues of this time period were fascinating to me! The laws, the architecture, the government, the social rules, the food, the clothing, and especially the plague kept me turning pages. I read this entire book with my Ipad near by as I enjoyed looking up pictures and additional information about the specific details mentioned. As part of the CCAC Literary Group discussion I was asked to discuss my favorite issues from chapters 3 and 4. Although my random notes may not be easy to follow I hope something can be gained from their review. (All quotation marks come from the Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare)

Chapter 3 – The lost years 1585-1592

London in the 16th century was full of “infectious maladies”.

When the plague flared (about every 10 years) all public performances and gatherings, except church were banned within seven miles of the city. “In nearly every year for at least 250 years, deaths outnumbered births in London.”  Life expectancy was around 35 years old, and in some poorer areas was only 25 years old.

London was not large, only about 2 miles from north to south and 3 miles from east to west. The distance could easily be covered in “not much more than an hour”.  “The walls were still largely intact, though often difficult to discern because so many buildings were propped against them.” As we often complain today, the fields surrounding the city were filling in. John Stow noted in his Survey of London in 1598 “that traffic in the city had grown impossible and that the young never walked.” I am a bit curious as to what they did if they didn’t walk; I believe horses were still only owned by the wealthy.

 The London Bridge was the only bridge across the river into London until 1750. The bridge was more than 900 feet long and housed over 100 shops and buildings of all shapes and sizes.  The water flowing under the bridge was dangerous but held large amounts and varieties of sea life. The Southward end of the bridge was home to Traitors Gate, where the heads of serious criminals were displayed on poles “each serving as a kind of odd and grisly bird feeder. (The headless bodies were hung above the entrance gates to the city, or distributed to other cities across the realm.) There were so many heads, indeed, that is was necessary to employ a Keeper of the Heads.” Shakespeare was possibly greeted by 2 of his own kinsmen, John Sommerville and Edward Arden, who were executed for planning to kill the queen.

The old Saint Paul’s Cathedral was larger than the one in London today. A steeple had once reached 500 feet into the sky but was destroyed by lightening and never replaced. This cathedral was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. St Paul’s served as both a cemetery and a market, selling books (as luxuries). Inside the cathedral was home to carpenters, bookbinders, lawyers, drunks, and vagrants. People relieved themselves in the corners and little boys played ball games in the aisles. Small fires were often built for keeping warm. (Similar to the story in the bible of Jesus visiting the temple and finding it in unfitting circumstances)

The London people loved their food sweet and ate many foods covered in sweet glazes and coated in sugar. “Such was the popularity of sugar that people’s teeth often turned black, and those who failed to attain the condition naturally sometimes blackened their teeth artificially to show that they  had had their share of sugar, too.”

Little is known about Shakespeare including when he first arrived in London. “We don’t know when Shakespeare first came to London.  Ever a shadow even in his own biography, he disappears, all but utterly from 1585-1592, the very years we would most like to know where he was and what he was up to, for it was in this period that he left Stratford (and presumably, wife and family) and established himself as an actor and playwright.” One theory as to his whereabouts during these years was that he disappeared to northern England and lived as a recusant catholic. However, there is no evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic.  “In short, and as always, a devoted reader can find support for nearly any position he or she wishes in Shakespeare. (Or as Shakespeare himself put it in a much misquoted line: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”)

Tensions between the Protestants and the Catholics reached a climax when the Spanish Armada lost a majority of their massive fleet. “The defeat of the Spanish Armada changed the course of history.  It induced a rush of patriotism in England that Shakespeare exploited in his history plays (nearly all written in the following decade), and it gave England the confidence and power to command the seas and build a global empire, beginning almost immediately with North America.”

Chapter 4 – In London

We seem to all have a fairly descriptive image of Shakespeare himself as well as the type of theater he wrote for and acted in. However, there appears to be very little evidence of exactly what the theaters of the time looked like. “And there you have the complete visual record we possess of theaters in Shakespeare’s day and somewhat beyond: one rough sketch of the interior of a playhouse Shakespeare had no connection with, one doubtful panorama by someone who may never have seen London, and one depiction done years after Shakespeare left the scene showing a theater he never wrote for.  The best that can be said of any of them is that they may bear some resemblance to the playhouses Shakespeare knew, but possibly not.”

A little more light is shed on the structure of Elizabethan theatrical life by the diary of Philip Henslowe. His papers included details concerning the building of the Fortune Theater in 1600. There were no pictures but there were descriptions including some dimensions.

Most theaters could not support themselves on plays alone and often became a place for bear fighting. “The sight of a screeching ape clinging for dear life to a bucking horse while dogs leaped at it from below was considered about as rich an amusement as public life could offer. That an audience that could be moved to tears one day by a performance of Doctor Faustus could return the next to the same space and be just as entertained by the frantic deaths of helpless animals may say as much about the age as any single statement could.”

The theaters were located outside the city walls where city laws and regulations did not apply. They shared spaces with prisons, brothels, lunatic asylums, and unconsecrated graveyards. There were also a number of smelly facilities including soap makers, glue makers, tanners, etc.

“The Puritans believed that the theaters were hotbeds of sodomy (a capital offence) and wanton liaisons of all sorts.” One story goes on to tell, “a young wife pleads with her husband to be allowed to attend a popular play. Reluctantly the husband consents, but with the strict proviso that she be vigilant for thieves and keep her purse buried deep within her petticoats.  Upon her return home the wife bursts into tears and confesses that the purse has been stolen.  The husband is naturally astounded. Did his wife not feel a hand probing beneath her dress? Oh, yes, she responds candidly, she had felt a neighbor’s hand there – “but I did not think he had come for THAT.”’

Shakespeare disappears again for two years in 1592-1593 during an intense outbreak of the plague. In London at least ten thousand people died in a single year.

Throughout the plague years many of Shakespeare’s competitors died. By 1594 only two troupes of theatrical companies remained. Shakespeare would stay with his company for the remainder of his working life.



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