As expected, the book presents facts about Shakespeare's life, work, and environment. The book reads much as one would expect and holds no surprise of construction, methodology, or presentation. The book is divided into chapters that establish what is known and what is generally supposed about several periods in Shakespeare's life and his environment. The book mentions most plays, several long poems, and a few sonnets; it does not present substantive literary criticism on any of the works but does briefly examine some issues of attribution. Bryson makes some attempt to place Shakespeare's materials into a general chronological order but does not tackle the thornier issues. The book's somewhat unbalanced biography is similar to all Shakespearean biography insofar as virtually nothing is actually known about the man whereas very much has been inferred. Bryson carefully notes fine distinctions between the two. For example, Shakespeare's death is presented mostly as an interpretation of his will, as that document has been discovered and can be analyzed objectively. The final chapter of the book examines the occasional academic notion that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare's material, and reviews some of the leading alternative theories and their attendant problems.
While nothing in the biography is new or even particularly innovative, it is nevertheless an invigorating review of extant data. Bryson brings a fresh and exciting voice to material that elsewhere often is stale in presentation. A mix of bedrock facts, such as Shakespeare's date of birth--"By tradition it is agreed to be April 23, Saint George's Day" (p. 24) in 1564--stand alongside humorous observations: "The Droeshout engraving [of Shakespeare]...is an arrestingly--we might almost say magnificently-mediocre piece of work" (p. 4). Bryson throws compellingly banal facts into the mix, too--"Shakespeare's works contain 138,198 commas, 26,794 colons, and 15,785 question marks" (p. 19). What emerges is a lovingly rendered biography of an obviously favorite subject. Those familiar with Shakespeare's life and times will find the information recast in an enjoyable way, while those unfamiliar with the topic will find the information intelligible and quite accessible. One of the book's particular strengths is the development of a sense of time and place surrounding Shakespeare as an individual. For example, Shakespeare's multi-year absence from the stage is explained by the closure of all London theaters due to plague.
Bryson's book includes nine named and enumerated chapters and a selected bibliography. It runs to 199 pages and has only a handful of footnotes. Bryson attributes several items within the book and occasionally textually refers to his sources to establish academic authority on some point. In summary, Bryson is an endlessly entertaining writer and Shakespeare - The World as Stage is an outstanding read for anyone who enjoys Shakespearean theater, good writing, or both.