Every Shakespeare biography is 5 percent fact and 95 percent conjecture, Bill Bryson recalls being told. He is determined to reverse the figures. The purpose of his 200-page Shakespeare: The World as Stage, he explains, “is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.” He doesn’t have an argument, particularly; instead Bryson aims to relate the facts of Shakespeare’s life as briskly as possible, while acknowledging puzzles, deductions, guesswork, and unsatisfactory explanations where they exist. He is not a scholar but a facile writer and assimilator of information, best known for A Short History of Nearly Everything, and he quotes liberally from eminent Shakespeareans like Stanley Wells, Frank Kermode, Sylvan Barnet, and Samuel Schoenbaum. He also conducted interviews with scholars in London’s National Portrait Gallery and National Archives, in Stratford-upon-Avon, and...