November 10th 2019
Book Review by Paul K.
Emma Smith This Is Shakespeare Pelican 2019
For an Oxford Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Emma Smith's attitude toward her subject is refreshingly unstuffy - I'd go so far as to say it's downright entertaining. As she points out, Shakespeare asks questions, making his works wonderfully unsuited to an exam system which tends to deal in right and wrong answers. Particularly when he leaves so many gaps.
Plays are not novels so we have little idea what most of the characters look like - perhaps excepting the likes of Richard the Third and Falstaff. Stage directions are few and far between and arguably not even Shakespeare's own. Most of the time we have only a script - it's easy to forget characters who are still on stage but not speaking; we can't see their reactions. We can't hear the gasps of horror or the laughter of the audience.
Smith examines some of these gaps to look at differing interpretations over time by asking questions of her own, for instance:
When Petruchio says 'kiss me Kate' does she?
Why is it that for some audiences King Lear is just too sad?
Why do we assume that Prospero is autobiographical?
There is plenty about the practicalities of performance, 'star' parts and doubling. She doesn't bother overmuch with Henry IV, Part 2 or Henry V or The Merry Wives because they could be seen as mere vehicles to cash in on the enormous success of the original creation. Much of her chapter on Twelfth Night concerns Sebastian's friend Antonio: for a minor character he seems to get a lot of stage time for few lines - why?
So the book is not an all-encompassing work of reference, but neither, for all its casual tone, is it in any way dumbed-down - it assumes a familiarity in its readership. There is a glaring howler in the chapter on A Midsummer Night's Dream that could almost be a deliberate mistake to keep us on our toes but that aside it stands as a fascinating look at 'Shakespeare' as something that happens when an audience engages with his plays. Which means it's all about interpretation - filling in the gaps - as Smith concludes:
"Shakespeare's plays aren't monuments to revere, or puzzles to resolve. They are partial, shifting, unstable survivals from a very different world which have the extraordinary ability to ventriloquize and stimulate our current concerns."
Shakespeare is as fashionable as he has ever been, be it a new biography, a forthcoming film or production, a novel adaptation or the latest contentious speculation. The best of these can be judged by a simple measure - do they send you back to the texts with renewed enthusiasm and wonder? Emma Smith's book does: highly recommended.