William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells

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Reviewed by Harriet

How much can be said about the life and work of Shakespeare in just 135 pages? A surprising amount, in fact. Clearly these OUP Very Short Introductions are not intended for serious scholars, but that does not make them any less interesting, and presumably they are extremely challenging to write. Stanley Wells aims this book at people who may have been put off Shakespeare’s plays by bad teaching or poor performances, but whose interest has been sparked one way or another and now want to know more.

First of all, who was Shakespeare? Wells wisely does not enter into any of the controversies, or discuss any of the putative candidates. This is the traditional Shakespeare, born in Stratford-on-Avon, married at nineteen to Anne Hathaway, living and working in London as an actor and playwright. The known facts of his life are not all that many, but they are set out here to make a coherent and convincing narrative, though there will always be some mysteries, not least the much discussed provision in his will that his wife should inherit only his ‘second best bed’. Wells’ avoidance of speculation means that readers won’t find discussions of Shakespeare’s sexuality, or attempts to identify the beautiful youth or the ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets: the furthest he will go is to suggest that, as the sonnets were almost certainly written over a long period of time, ‘It looks as if Shakespeare was writing in these poems about a number of different friends and lovers’. Maybe – though couldn’t he have been in love with the same people over a long period of time?

When it comes to the plays, Wells chooses not to group them in strictly chronological order (which in any case is another contentious area). So the five chapters in this central part of the book are Plays of the 1590s (essentially the history plays, though Romeo and Juliet gets in here too), Shakespeare and Comic Form, Return to Tragedy, Classical Plays, and Tragicomedy – a grouping which is helpful in seeing what sort of ideas Shakespeare was interested in working with, but in fact turns out be be roughly chronological anyway. I thought I knew my Shakespeare pretty well but have always been rather vague about the various Henry plays, and it was really interesting to discover that the three plays we know as Henry VI Parts 1-3 were not written in chronological order, and that two of them had different titles when they were first performed. Indeed, Wells write with great perceptiveness about all the plays he discusses, and it was a pleasure to read his necessarily brief commentaries.

It was also a bit of a surprise, dotted here and there throughout the book, to find plays that I had never thought of as being by Shakespeare at all – the History plays section mentions Edward III, described as a ‘jingoistic drama’, to which Shakespeare ‘appears to have contributed’. A play called Sir Thomas More (1603-4) is also discussed as one to which Shakespeare was ‘called in as a kind of play-mender’, and Wells also mentions a number of plays now apparently thought, or known, to be collaborations, including Pericles and Henry VIII, and a couple of late works supposedly written with John Fletcher: Cardenio (now lost) and Two Noble Kinsmen. All these conclusions are evidently based on ‘computerised linguistic stylistic analysis’. Being something of a nerd, I was deeply curious to know more about how, when and why these attributions came to be made, and how certain they are, but I suppose that’s the point, really, as obviously one of the aims of this book is to get people to explore and to read more widely. There’s a brief but helpful list of Further Reading at the end to enable them to do just that.

So all in all I enjoyed this little book very much, and it made me want to go back to the plays themselves as well as to delve into some recent secondary works. If you think you might have failed to fully appreciate Shakespeare, whether owing to bad teaching or to less than first-rate performances, this is an excellent place to start exploring the life and work of probably the most celebrated dramatist not only in Britain but also throughout the world.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Stanley Wells, William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 976-0198718628, 126pp., paperback.

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