Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Bryson's book on Shakespeare was enjoyable.  His purpose was to cover what could be said for certain about Shakespeare and, he admitted, there's very little of that and much more about what we don't know and what was erroneously reported as fact over the centuries. I suspect I'll read a few other books in the Eminent Lives series as well.

Rather than go into any great detail, I'll quote a few of the more amusing, disturbing, and interesting passages.

"One variation was to put a chimpanzee on the back of a horse and let the dogs go for both together.  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." [72].

For a friend who wondered why anyone might still want to learn Latin:
"Yet curiously English was still struggling to gain respectability.  Latin was still the language of official documents and of serious works of literature and learning.  Thomas More's Utopia, Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, and Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica were all in Latin.  The Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1605 possessed almost six thousand books.  Of these, just thirty-six were in English.  Attachment to Latin was such that in 1568 when one Thomas Smith produced the first textbook on the English language, he wrote it in Latin." [115]

On James I.  Not the account I ever read during college history courses, either British or Scandinavian, and I had both:
"James was not, by all accounts, the most visually appealing of fellows.  He was graceless in motion, with a strange lurching gait, and  had a disconcerting habit, indulged more or less constantly, of playing with his codpiece.  His tongue appeared to be too large for his mouth.  It "made him drink very uncomely," wrote one contemporary, "as if eating his drink." His only concession to hygiene, it was reported, was to daub his fingertips from time to time with a little water.  It was said one could identify all his meals since becoming king from the stains and gravy scabs on his clothing, which he wore "to very rags."  His odd shape and distinctive waddle were exaggerated by his practice of wearing extravagantly padded jackets and pantaloons to protect himself from assassins' daggers...James and his brother-in-law, King Christian IV of Denmark, undertook a "drunken and orgiastic progress" through the stately homes of the Thames Valley, with Christian at one point collapsing "smeared in jelly and cream." [133-134].

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