Two new books on the master playwright offer a refreshing reconsideration of his workby Rhodri Lewis / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Although events in Westminster have (so far) spared us Boris Johnson’s promised book on Shakespeare, one could be forgiven for thinking that more popular studies of the playwright are being published than ever before. Shakespearean biography and pseudo-biography are wells that never seem to run dry; the market for Shakespeare as a political, moral, cultural, philosophical and religious prophet, like that for Shakespeare as a window on the history of the 16th- and 17th-century worlds, continues to flourish. Beyond their prominent place in the heritage industry, what such studies have in common is not so much a lack of interest in Shakespeare’s works, as a loss of confidence in them. Rather than focusing on the complexities, challenges and frequent joys of Shakespeare’s art, they are content to make his plays the servants of arguments or histories to which his art is incidental. To the extent that Shakespeare’s works are said to matter, it is because of their value as a source material—or simply because they can be shown to have been important to so many different opinion-forming people for such a long time.
Viewed from here, the two very different titles under review are a tonic. Both take seriously Shakespeare’s works as artistic wholes, and both stress that to appreciate them demands our willingness to consider them in the poetic and dramatic round.
Emma Smith’s This is Shakespeare will, for some time to come, remain required reading for all those with more than a passing interest in Shakespeare. In 20 short chapters, each devoted to an individual play, Smith takes us on a chronological tour of the playwright’s writing career. The style is brisk, and to gauge from her “Approaching Shakespeare” podcasts, replicates the experience of her lectures for undergraduates at Oxford. The book feels decidedly Oxford in at least one other way: she has learned a lot from John Carey’s curious amalgam of populism, erudition and homeliness—and also has his knack for sketching complex ideas in arrestingly unstuffy prose. But Smith’s canvas and palette are more expansive than those of the Merton professor emeritus. More importantly, she never sacrifices nuance to vigour, and is often very funny.
One consequence of reading Shakespeare’s works in the round is that it becomes difficult to…