This is a very strange and frustrating book: it reads like a lighthearted text book for teenagers - except that it has no index (a cardinal sin for any non-fiction book). It is about a wordsmith, but the first chapter focuses on what he may have looked like. Its mission and content is to tell us about Shakespeare, yet it tells us in exhaustive and repetitive detail that almost nothing is or can be known about the man ("a wealth of text but poverty of context").
There are pages of disjointed facts about life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Some of them are staggeringly banal ("At the top of the social heap was the monarch") and others are weirdly specific (e.g. the laws about hat wearing). All the way through, Bryson alternates between cagtaloguing all the unknowns of Shakespeare's life and trying to describe it; consequently, his text is heavily sprinkled with "probably" and even weaker caveats. It makes it all seem rather pointless and distracts from the few interesting insights he does have. He describes his subject as "ever elusive", despite stressing the fact that we know far more
about Shakespeare than almost anyone else who lived at that time; equally contradictory is the claim that "More than for any other writer, Shakespeare's words stand separate from his life" - but surely we can't know that because, as Bryson keeps saying, we know so little about his life!
Bryson identifies three options for researchers in the absence of hard facts: "pick minutely over legal documents... to speculate... or to persuade themselves they know more than they actually do". It's not clear which option Bryson took; as he says, "A devoted reader can find support for nearly any position he or she wishes in Shakespeare".
The only really interesting points were that estimates of Shakespeare's vocabulary are usually huge overestimates because they include each variant of word form and spelling: take, takes, tak'n, taken etc. It's not the size, but what he did with it that mattered; his true skill was as a phrasemaker, demonstrated by the fact that 10% of the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations are from his works.
Fortunately this was a quick, easy read. I only read it at the behest of my father-in-law: I am not a big Bryson fan, rarely read biographies and am not a huge history enthusiast either. Reading it has not changed those preferences.