Posts Tagged ‘william shakespeare


Book Review: Shakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

Shakespeare's LivesShakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

The other night a local newscast had a story about Shakespeare’s grave, namely that his skull may or may not be inside there. I didn’t bother paying a ton of attention to the story because just a day or two before, I’d finished this book, which says (among many other things) that the grave has either Shakespeare’s bones, a horde of manuscripts or nothing but dust. It depends on who’s story you believe.

That’s kind of what this thick, endlessly facinating book is about. It’s less a biography of Shakespeare than a survey of his biographers, idolaters and haters. It looks at dozens and dozens of books, pamphlets, monographs and memoirs about the Bard and charts how a poet and playwright from Stratford became the national poet and heir to controversies that will never quite go away completely.

In a brief biographical sketch at the beginning, Schoenbaum lays out the facts of Shakespeare’s life: family history, as proven by biographical records, his career and a general order of plays, his retirement death and, eventually, the extinction of his direct biological line. It takes him maybe 100 pages, give or take. That’s when the fun starts. With Shakespeare dead and buried, the legends begin to fly all fast and furious: he was a deer poacher! He died after a drinking bout with Ben Jonson! He was cuckolded and in a final fit of pique, denied his wife the honor of being in the same grave! Soon, the legends didn’t fill in the gaps, they replaced the known facts. Oh, and we’re just getting started here, folks.

Over the centuries, more and more stuff sprung up about Shakespeare, all of which Schoenbaum has a knowledge of. There was eccentric scholars like George Steevens and James Halliwell-Phillips, rigorous biographers like Edmund Malone and EK Chambers and forgers and fraudsters like William Henry Ireland. And to his credit, Schoenbaum makes these controversies and battles of letters come alive in his pages; the Ireland-Malone battles are downright facinating and would make a good book on their own, although I could say the same for the battles over portraits 0r a wild and drunken Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 where people danced and drank during a flood that wrecked havoc in Stratford.

Throughout the book, Schoenbaum tries to keep an even tone, never going too far to bash one critic or writer unfairly; he’s even rather kind to forgers like Ireland. But when he gets to the people trying to discredit Shakespeare completely, he just unleashes on them and it’s amazing; he calls books unreadable, writers cranks or lunatics and dryly leaves in large chunks of their nearly-unreadable prose. It’s fun, but it’s also interesting and colourful history: Delia Bacon waits overnight in Shakespeare’s vault, working up courage to break into it and get the proof she needs William didn’t write his plays; Ignatius Donnelly builds elaborate machines to prove Francis Bacon left a hidden message inside the plays. All sorts of names pop up here: Mark Twain says he doesn’t believe Shakespeare could have written all these works, while Malcolm X says he didn’t even think Shakespeare was even a real person.

Although this book sounds like the kind of thing only a scholar would have any interest in, I think really anybody with an interest in Shakespeare can get a lot out of this. Although his writing is rather British in tone (lots of passive voice, too), Schoenbaum’s book never stops being interesting. And he’s read so, so many things it’s impressive; he’s even read multiple versions of books he despises for this project.

By the end of it, I was left with one sort-of regret about this book: it was written too soon! A little over a decade after the second edition was published (1990), a new spate of controversies arose: a portrait of Shakespeare found in Canada (see: Shakespeare’s Face), duelling biographies by Germaine Greer (Shakespeare’s Wife) and Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) and more arguments over if he wrote Edward III. It would’ve been nice to see his opinion on books by James Shapiro, Bill Bryson and Harold Bloom. But really, that’s such a minor quibble.

Don’t make this the first book you read about Shakespeare, but I’d definitely recommend reading it after Greenblatt, if only so you can see how much supposition went into that book and give you some perspective into it.


Shakespeare – Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraAnthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Oxford World Classics, edited by Michael Neill

Okay, so let’s start with the obvious. Anthony and Cleopatra is a Shakespeare play, which means that it’s generally very good, sometimes a little confusing and very much a work a fiction.

Essentially, the play follows the final months of the second Roman Civil War, the one where Anthony was defeated at Actium and Octavian assumed control of the Roman Republic, essentially turning it into the Empire and setting the stage for a good 300 years of perpetual dictatorship. You know, season two of HBO’s Rome. The play plays fast and loose with the facts – Stacy Schiff has noted Cleopatra was likely a good deal more savvy  than Shakespeare plays her, for example – but even now, this play has tremendous influence; when was the last time you heard Anthony called by his proper name, Antonius?

As for the play itself, I’ll restrict myself to a few loose thoughts. I’ve never seen it in performance, but I imagine it works a great deal better here than it would on stage. Yes, Cleopatra, Octavian and Anthony are all fascinating characters, but the staging and pace of this thing is hard to figure out: Act 5, for example, has a confusing scene where Anthony’s body is taken to Cleopatra: was it lifted or taken off stage and brought around? There are others, including a triumph scene and Enobarbus’ death, which seemed a deal hard to picture in my head.

Still, it’s a fun read and one I enjoyed thinking about, especially the political scenes where Anthony and Octavian talk in formalities as they plot the other’s downfall; I’m currently reading a book about Nixon’s first term of office and I can’t help think of the similarities. Anyway, it’s Shakespeare. You’ll probably like it.

So the focus here is in this specific text, the Oxford edition first published in 1994 (and currently in it’s third edition). It weighs in a hefty 400 pages, with a lengthy introduction and notes by Michael Neill. In a novella-length intro, Neill writes about the textual history of the play, it’s performance history and looks at it in the context of it’s times. He makes some interesting observations about parallels between it and an earlier play and to North’s translation of Plutarch (see here and here for stuff I’ve written about Plutarch). There’s also a lengthy analysis of the different themes of this play, which I found occasionally interesting but mostly over-my-head or pedantic. I suppose students studying this play in a classroom would get more from that than a casual reader.

Thankfully, Neill spends a lot of time on the play’s performance history; how it wasn’t staged for many years, then staged with archaeological trappings: whatever the current trend for how Roman Egypt looked was how the play was staged. I suppose it’s interesting, but truthfully, I was more interested when he describes how different performers played their characters to different effect. For example, Patrick Stewart’s Enobarbus gave the play a different feeling than Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. There’s an interesting bit on the lack of black casts for this play, which does go out of it’s way to describe Cleopatra in similar language as Shakespeare describes Othello. It’s all interesting stuff; going back to it after reading the play helps set the scenes you just read a little better, too.

The book is packed with notes, too. They can seem overwhelming, especially when they dominate the page, but they’re almost always helpful. Sometimes they explain an obscure word or point out how it’s the first recorded use of one. Sometimes they offer textual commentary: why he added or dropped a word from the manuscript or other editions. Occasionally, they help explain a scene and how a reader should interpret it, like this note to scene 2.6, a confrontation between Anthony and Octavian:

“The veiled ironies of this scene are nicely caught in Peter Hall’s note to his actors at The National: ‘this scene is about politicians who never say what they are thinking… conceal your hostility beneath a veil of utmost charm. Make it sound perfectly genuine. The art is to show now nice you can be.’ ” (pg 204)

Generally, I found myself reading each scene twice. Once straight through, then a second time going back and forth between the text and notes. I usually didn’t have any trouble; unfamiliar words usually explain themselves in the play’s scenes. But the notes helped too, especially on the second reading, since they explain what’s happening on stage or what various editors (from Dr. Johnson right up to Neill) think Shakespeare was getting at.

A final note: I find that when reading Shakespeare, or any play for that matter, it’s worth remembering it’s meant to be read out loud, like poetry. If you’re passive when reading his work, it’s easy to fall into his verse and never come out; phrases that seem hard to follow on paper are a lot easier to keep track of when read out loud.

I don’t have this play in another edition, so I can’t compare it directly to Arden, Pelican, Norton or other editions, but generally Oxford seems about the same with Arden’s long introduction and heavy annotation. It doesn’t have the critical appendixes Norton’s usually does – just an abridged version of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Antonius and a section on pronouns – but it’s more specific than I usually find Pelican editions to be: no general intro on Shakespeare and his life, no long discussion of The Globe or etc, but a detailed and specific intro to the play.


But Who Was Willy Shakes? – Will In the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a Shakespeare kick. Over the past year or so, I’ve grabbed just about a shelf full of his plays (generally the Oxford ones, although lately I’ve been grabbing Arden’s versions instead), literary criticism of his plays (Harold Bloom’s Invention of the Modern Mind stands out) and even a biography or two.

So when I grabbed a copy of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, I had an idea what to expect: a look at where he came from and of his time in the London theatre scene. Maybe something about his legacy, certainly something on how the First Folio was published. And almost surely a lot of supposition.

And while Greenblatt’s book is a little of all those, but it’s a lot more, too. Thing is, not all of it’s about the man himself.

There’s not a ton of details left unexplored for Shakespeare, which makes the few things we know well-covered. The will leaving the second-best bed to Anne, the story of why left Stratford-upon-Avon, a handful of portraits and first-hand accounts. Greenblatt’s book generally covers all the major events of Shakespeare’s life and takes a critical look at them, too. When he relates a story from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, he’s careful to note how inaccurate Aubrey’s book is.

Where it stands out best is when Greenblatt turns his critical eye to Shakespeare’s plays. The later chapters are mostly focused on specific plays, rather than a clear chronology of his life, and Greenblatt goes into the social and political contexts of each play, buttressing his conclusions with ample quoting from the plays themselves. For example, he draws a line between King James’ fear of witches and a small play written by Matthew Gwinn to the three witches’ in Macbeth and their role in guiding the action along.

It’s interesting stuff. Greenblatt breaks down why a character like Shylock resonates so specifically, while drawing connections between his character and then-contemporary London, putting the play not just in context but offering an interpretation on how it came together and what motivations Shakespeare may have had.

But read that last sentence again: may have had. For every opinion offered in this book, Greenblatt is careful to point out it’s speculative. Phrases like “…It is difficult to attribute anything in Hamlet specifically to these events…” (pg 310) come up again and again. Another example, this time in a section about how Shakespeare parodyed his contemporary playwrights: “if all the plays had survived, scholars would no doubt have identified other instances.” Possibly, but that’s more supposition.

In a preface, Greenblatt admits the trail is long on items but short on details. “To understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into art, it is important to use our own imagination,” he writes (pg 14). All the guesswork isn’t a fatal flaw here, but it keeps a nagging doubt in the back of my mind: how much of this book is Greenblatt’s interpretation? Does it extend further than an analysis of the poems and plays? Does he project on to the facts, like with Shakespeare’s marriage?

In a chapter focusing on that marriage, Greenblatt looks thoroughly through the plays to find evidence that William and Anne’s marriage was an unhappy one. He quotes from All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, Hamlet and elsewhere, each time striking at his idea that the marriage was unhappy and distant. While he eventually concludes Shakespeare may have written a single sonnet to his wife, he also writes it off as almost unworthy of mention: “such an origin may explain its anomalous meter… and it’s ineptitude,” he writes. (pg 143). Nowhere does he mention what role (if any) she played in getting his plays published and barely touches on her life in Stratford must’ve been like. One of the other Shakespeare books I’ve been reading takes a different angle; look for review of Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife sometime soon.

Still, even if this is a highly individualist take on the plays, it’s one I’m glad to have read. While I’m sometimes a little skeptical of his conclusions, I’m not going to argue with the breadth of research and knowledge that went into this. It’s obvious that he knows the plays inside and out, but more interestingly, has done volumes of research. His notes in the back aren’t overly specific – he rather mentions what he’s referring to than pointing to each reference specifically – but suggest a whole other shelf full of secondary material: biographies, histories, essays and collections of documents.

Where I found this biography a little lacking was in a clear narrative. Perhaps it’s because of a general lack of resources, but Greenblatt moves around a lot. He’s unable to give much information on the final years of Shakespeare, dryly noting that nobody bothered recording when or how he died. Likewise, his ideas on Shakespeare’s marriage, relationship towards his children and connection to fellow actors and playwrights all seem like guesswork. Educated, yes, but still an opinion.

Rating: 7/10. If I had to summarize this book in a word, I’d use opinion. Greenblatt’s an opinionated guy and one who knows quite a lot about Shakespeare and the world he lived in. But there’s not a lot to be certain about; it’s impossible to write something as through, detailed and insightful as Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce about someone who we generally know so little about. I enjoyed it, but I also enjoying comparing it’s conclusions to other people’s, too.