Monday, January 26, 2015

Reads for Writers: Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.

          I love books—hardcover or paperback—but some books are more physically beautiful than others. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition is one of the beautiful books.

          The glossy, heavy stock paper pages are filled with full color photographs, paintings including the Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare identified in 2009 but not without controversy, documents, woodcuts, drawings, and sketches not to mention Bryson’s entrancing prose and entertaining facts like:

Shakespeare produced roughly one tenth of all the most quotable utterances written or spoken in English since its inception. (page 151)

He coined—or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of—2,035 words, and interestingly he indulged the practice from the very outset of his career. (page 148)


Although he left nearly a million words of text, we have just fourteen words in his own hand—his name signed six times and the words ‘by me’ on his will. (page 24)

That juxtaposition just adds to the mystery of Shakespeare’s life.

While organized chronologically, Bill Bryson’s well-researched book is written as a captivating guided tour of Shakespeare’s life, historic London, and the rise and fall of the theatres. Shakespeare’s companions and competitors all have roles as well. Who would the man be without his time, place, and contemporaries? Not to mention his published works. Given all the facts, it’s difficult to imagine where the English language would be without Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s plays might have been lost…had it not been for his close friends and colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who seven years after Shakespeare’s death, produced a folio edition of his complete works…Heminges and Condell were the last of the original Chamberlain’s Men. (page 202)

          No one knows exactly how many First Folios were printed…but all or part of three hundred survive. (page 211-212) Shakespeare never entirely dropped out of esteem—as the publication of Second, Third and Fourth Folios clearly attests—but nor was he reverenced as he is today. After his death, some of his plays weren’t performed again for a very long time. (page 217)

          For any writer, being recognized and read nearly 400 years after death is astonishing—and deserving of celebration in such a gorgeous and engaging book.

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