Reviewed by Simon Thomas
A few years ago I very much enjoyed A Truth Universally Acknowledged, an anthology of writers and readers celebrating Jane Austen, which was also edited by Susannah Carson. My main bugbear with it was the absence of dates or source material. It looked as though the whole thing had been commissioned and collected by Carson, and it was only my familiarity with contributors like Virginia Woolf and C.S. Lewis that made me realise this couldn’t have been the case.
This edition is different. There is a brief note in the introduction saying that ‘Although portions of some essays have been offered previously, these essays have been updated by the authors specifically for this collection. This is the first time these essays have appeared in their current form.’ That note is easy to miss, but I think it is very significant. Unlike A Truth Universally Acknowledged, it means the collection doesn’t give an overview of responses to Shakespeare through time – instead, it is a statement of how people engage with him right now.
A compilation of essays about Shakespeare is rather a different animal from one about Jane Austen in other ways. Although many people doubtless do read Shakespeare for pleasure, he is chiefly encountered either on stage or in the classroom (and, by extension, the lecture theatre, the literary conference, etc.) Legions of men and women will curl up with Pride and Prejudice and a mug of tea, and be more than willing to discuss whether or not Mary Crawford is like Lizzie Bennett. If we’re talking about the mental stability of Othello, it feels rather more academic.
So it is to the contributors’ credit that so much of this collection is both interesting and entertaining. There are certainly more academic essays (‘Trial by Theatre, or Free-Thinking in Julius Caesar’, say, by the aptly named Oxford don Richard Scholar), but my favourite from the collection bravely eschews the trappings of academe: ‘Re-revising Shakespeare’ by Jess Winfield.
Winfield is the cofounder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which has performed The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) since the 1980s. What makes this essay so interesting, and a useful light upon Shakespeare’s own play-writing and early performances, is Winfield’s highlighting of the ways in which performing his abridgement has differed in relation to audience, location, and editing. Yes, the essay is very funny; it also shines light on the Bard.
It is testament to the variety in Shakespeare & Me that this sort of irreverent essay can go check-by-jowl with Dominic Dromgoole’s ‘Playing Shakespeare at the Globe’, in which he concedes:
Some Shakespeare [performances are] very lifeless, but when it is dead it’s usually a byproduct of institutional deadness. If the institution behind the production has no heart or imagination, then they can produce work that’s very cynical and hasn’t got a spark of life or a reason to exist – and if it hasn’t got a reason to exist, then it can be very dull to watch. There is no easy solution, though, since one can put together productions with great, good intentions which then come out a bit turgid. And then, too, a show can be absolutely festive, wild, and brilliant one night, and then on another night it can be flat on the floor. The success of any Shakespearean performative venture is very hard to understand or predict.
There is an enjoyable honesty to the collection, particularly those essays which address acting. While the literary critics and authors are often concerned with the minutiae of the writing – Germaine Greer on ‘Spring Imagery in Warwickshire’, for instance, or Joyce Carol Oates on ‘The Tragedy of Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra’ – they are seldom assessing Shakespeare’s qualities. The actors and directors also aren’t giving the Bard marks out of ten, but they can talk about how performances may or may not be successful. That feels more intriguing to me – and is also a case of how Shakespeare’s work in performance is constantly alive and changing, whereas the text is necessarily more static.
It would be impossible to cover everything there is to say about Shakespeare in one book, or even one library. He was also, of course, far more prolific than Austen, so there are some plays which have been entirely neglected by this collection. On a personal note, I would love to have seen more from the great Shakespearean actresses of our age – we have Antony Sher, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, but no Judi Dench, Maggie Smith etc. etc. (although Harriet Walter is a very welcome contributor.) Bizarrely, there is no Kenneth Branagh, whose name is more or less synonymous with contemporary Shakespearean acting and directing. James Franco doesn’t quite cut it.
These are minor quibbles for a collection which aims at – and achieves – variety rather than comprehensiveness. Anybody whose life has been touched in any way by Shakespeare will find much to like, love, and learn.
Susannah Carson, Shakespeare & Me: 38 Great Writers, Actors, and Directors on What the Bard Means to Them – and Us (London, Oneworld, 2014) 500pp., hardback.