SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS STAGE, by Bill Bryson, Harper Collins, 200 pages, $19.95

Bill Bryson's wit, insatiable curiosity and hunger for sharing insightful tidbits make this smart treatise on the life of Shakespeare a fast and fun read.

The fun begins with Bryson's investigative spin on why the picture we all recognize as being Shakespeare may not, in fact, be Shakespeare at all. "He is at once the best known and least known of figures," he writes.

According to Bryson, all that we actually know about Shakespeare, who never spelled his name the same way twice in the signatures that survive, is that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon, produced a family there, went to London, became an actor and writer, returned to Stratford, made a will and died.

As boring as this might initially sound, Bryson tells it with such steady-handed drollery that you laugh and scratch your head, wondering how a man who left behind nearly a million words of text could be such an enigma.

But it's Bryson's addition of little-known facts, helping to paint a picture of the Bard's Elizabethan life, that makes the book a gem. For example, in Shakespeare's day perhaps 40 percent of women were pregnant when they were married.

"Shakespeare's work," Bryson writes, "contains 138,198 commas, 26,794 colons and 15,785 question marks." The word "dunghill" is used 10 times and "dullard" twice; his characters refer to love 2,259 times but hate just 409 times.

One of the more intriguing entries in the book is where Bryson lists words added to the English language by the Bard.

"Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany and countless others (including countless)."

It is interesting what words he used that didn't catch on: Undeaf, untent, exsufficate, bepray and insultment. However, about 800 of the Bard's words are still in use today.

In "Claimants," the book's final chapter, Bryson responds to the accusation that Shakespeare didn't truly write all the plays. It is an old allegation, more than 5,000 books and many more articles assert the theory, and Bryson is quick to set things right and give the Bard his due credit. He does this through logical comparisons and counter-arguments. It is perhaps the most enlightening portion of the book.

To his credit, Bryson doesn't coerce nor expect us to accept his argument, but we do come away from our reading with a newfound respect for the playwright.

"When we reflect upon the works of William Shakespeare," he writes in the book's conclusion, "it is of course an amazement to consider that one man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling, ever-delighting body of work, but that is of course the hallmark of genius. Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man — whoever he was."

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