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Bill Bryson

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There is a lot we don't know abt WS - fundamental things. We don't know exactly how many plays he wrote or in what order he wrote them. Altho he left nearly a million words of text, we have just 14 words in his own hand, his name signed six times, and the words 'by me' on his will. We have no description of his appearance or character written while he was alive.

We have no record of the eight critical years when he left his wife and three children and became, with almost unbeliveable swiftness, a successful playwright in London.

Records that survive from this time are actually in quite good condition. Sheepskin is a very durable medium, and the paper was made from rags, and virtually acid free.

The lack of info is actually typical of anyone from that period. Ben Jonson was more famous than WS at the time, but we don't know when or where he was born, who his parents were or how many children he had.

One of the most popular plays of the period was Arden of Famersham, but we have no idea who wrote it. We know that Thomas Kyd wrote the most successful play of the day, The Spanish Tragedy, but only bc of a passing ref in a document written 20 years after his death.

What we do have is WS's plays, or at least almost all of them. And that is due to the efforts of his colleagues Henry Condell and John Heminges, who put together the First Folio after his death.

The collection is unusual. Of the estimated 3000 plays thought to have been staged between the time of Shakespeare's birth and the closung of theatres by the Puritans in 1642, 80% are known only by their title. Only 230 play texts stll exist from WS's time, including the 38 of his.

National Archives in London have tens of millions of documents (over 100 miles of shelves) relating to Shakespeare's time. Because paper and parchment very expensive, everyone wrote very small and used every bit of space - no paragraphs. So very difficult to read. Only way to discover references to S is to sit down and methodically comb through each document.

In early 1900's an odd American couple by name of Charles and Hilda Wallace set out to do just that. Working 18 hour days they found quite a few new refs to WS, mainly in law cases and other official docs.

But as years went by, Charles became odder. Convinced that jealous English scholars were plotting to hinder his quest, he became quite paranoid, and eventually gave up and returned to US. There he developed another strange conviction: that he could identify oil-bearing ground just by looking at it. He sank all his remaining money into a 160 acre farm in West Texas. It turned out to be one of the most productive oil fields in America. Charles died in 1932, immensely wealthy, and still extremely unhappy.

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WS was born into a world that was short of people and struggled to keep those it had. In 1564 Eng popn between 3 and 5 million, much less than what it was 300 years earlier before the plagues. The popn was actually shrinking by about 6% at time of WS birth. The plague outbreak in 1564 Stratford was vicious. At least 200 people died in Stratford - 10x the normal rate. Even in non-plague years 16% of infants perished in England; in 1564 nearly 2/3 of them died. So WS first big achievement was simply surviving.

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Whenever plague broke out, the well off evacuated. This is reason for the royal castles just outside London - Rishmond, Greenwich, Hampton Court. Whenevr the death toll hit 40 a day, all public gatherings were banned, so the theatres closed. In Shakespeare's time there was a law forbidding new buildings within 3 miles of walls of London, on pain of demolition. Although rarely carried out the threat meant no-one built anything substantial - so great fields covered with instant slums, and theatres like The Globe.

Catholics cd pay a fine to avoid going to (Prot) church services. (Recusants) Until 1581 the fine was only 12p, and imposed sporadically. But then raised to a crushing £20 a month. Remarkably, 200 citizens were wealthy (and pious) enough to pay that, an unexpected £45,000 that was very useful amid preps for the Spanish Armada.

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There were sumptuary laws proscribing clothes and fabrics people cd wear. Food was also regulated. Anyone caught eating meat during Lent faced 3 months in prison. Luckily most light coloured meats like veal, chicken and other birds, was helpfully classified as fish.

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Beer was drunk in pref to dirty water available. A gallon a day was the trad ration for monks. But an aquired taste - a Continental visitor decsribed it as 'cloudy, like horse's piss'. The well-off tended to drink wine, generally by the pint.

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In 1596 a visiting Dutch tourist named Johannes De Witt did something unique - he made a rough sketch of the interior of one of London's playhouses, The Swan. This was later lost, but a friend had copied it into a notebook which found its way into the archives of the Uni of Utrecht in the Netherlands. It was rediscovered by a student in 1888, whorecognized its significance as the only known visual depiction of an Elizabethan playhouse. (All the reconstructions come from this single sketch.)

To prosper, a theatre needed to attract a crowd every day, and to do that it needed to constantly produce new plays. Most companies proced 5 different plays a week. Plays belonged to the company, not the playwright.

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