Bill Bryson gives an inevitably wry and witty account of the life of one of the most significant literary figures in history, taking the reader on a chronological whistle-stop tour through the life and world of Shakespeare. This was a biography so entertaining that it refused to budge from The Times top ten for 38 weeks in 2008.

This book is a summary of speculation, a collection of the many fascinating myths about Shakespeare’s life created by over-imaginative critics and historians which are in turn are unpicked and cleverly (although sometimes a bit disappointingly) undermined by Bryson’s sharp asides and footnotes.

Bryson refuses to join straw-clutching enthusiasts and refrains from romanticising Shakespeare, painting an honest picture of him that does not stray from the undeniable facts (which turn out to number very few indeed). Bryson himself admits to having created a ‘slender book’ and tells the reader that the few scraps of information that the past has thrown us are not to be taken for granted.

Nevertheless Bryson fills two hundred pages with accurate and entertaining facts about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England (at the time monks drank on average a gallon of beer a day and Shakespeare was an older relation of a ringleader in the gunpowder plot), making this book a sort of sophisticated relation of the ‘Horrible Histories’ collection.

Bryson has evidently been more than rigorous in his research; his genuine interest and enthusiasm is contagious and the interspersed gory and humorous facts ensure that there is never a dull moment. He writes in a manner that is colloquial but never patronising. He doesn’t bog the reader down with historical facts but decorates the book with anecdotes and, of course, humour. All readers are catered for and this book will appeal to the historian, dramatist and the seeker of a good laugh. The reader is left with a realistic and all the more interesting image of the man behind the plays.

Sarah Hall

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