Friday, June 22, 2018


A couple of weeks ago I joined my kid's class excursion to the State Library of NSW. I have been to that beautiful building often, spending hours at times either exploring the new books that invariably land there (I was informed that any book published in NSW needs to hand over a couple of copies to the library), or just sitting there, working. However, this was the first time I got to know more about the library, and tour the hidden parts of the library. Such as the layers deep beneath the library. We visited underground 'Stacks' which are better than some A grade shelters, and which, all this while,  I never realized existed. These were full of old papers, books and artifacts.

The Shakespeare Room, State Library of NSW
Eventually, we reached the Shakespeare room. It is a beautiful, cosy little room with stained glass windows and a collection of Shakespeare books. It was great to see kids introduced to Shakespeare through drama, props and costumes, and with a context on the time and ages he lived in.  So much better than stumbling on Shakespeare through homework or a private silent reading of the plays. That was the highlight of the day- to listen to kids read and enact Shakespeare in that beautiful room.

The trip inspired me enough to visit a library on the way back and pick up something on or by Shakespeare. That is the roundabout intro to my recent read, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, in the Eminent Lives series. I haven't read much of Shakespeare. But one cannot grow up in the current times without encountering him or watching shows and movies inspired by him, or hearing the famous soliloquies or reading some of the sonnets. He is too ingrained in the popular culture for that. My school's intro to Shakespeare was mainly through a couple of movies. I never read any of his plays for school. I recall using the 'Taming of the Shrew' story to write and enact a skit with my friends. I now cringe at the choice of the play and the chauvinist undertones! But one can't really change the past. It is what it is.

Eventually, I read As you like it . And more recently, I read Macbeth; the choice of the play being guided both by it being one of the complete texts in Norton's Leadership anthology (which has many gems, and a good way to pick up new books and authors), and oddly, equally by a Blackadder episode referring to Macbeth.

So I am at a beginner level as well. As to Bill Bryson, I quite enjoy his writing. He writes non fiction with such a flair that it flows and keeps you gripped better than fiction. His Down Under was a worthy intro to Australia before we moved here bags and baggage. There is a lightness of touch and a love for what he is doing that shines through his work which makes it so jovial and merry. And so  was this 200 page slender volume.

Given that so much is written about Shakespeare (there were 1000 books in the Shakespeare room itself), this book is unique in the sense that it tries to talk about Shakespeare from only what is known of him from original sources.  And in doing so, paints a wonderful picture of the times he lived in, of the way things were then, and how he was such an outstanding and pioneering product of his times. The amount of work generated by Shakespeare in a short super-busy life with constant theater and the related prep is awe-inspiring. Existing at the early stage of the printed book revolution, of limited paper availability, of records kept in hither- thither manner, and pretty much launching the theater industry, delivering hit plays week after week, and along the way, writing beautiful sonnets and poems, the young bard of Avon achieved quite a lot, inadvertently reminding me of the industrious radio scriptwriter from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (by Mario Vargas Llosa).

Bill Bryson's book gives a lot of color around the whole Shakespeare industry as well. And is as much a story of Shakespeare, as a history of Shakespeare appreciation that has evolved over time.

A quick, fun read.

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