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51: SHAKESPEARE: HOW AND WHEN

#51: SHAKESPEARE: HOW AND WHEN. Two of the recent (2004/5) books on Shakespeare are vividly detailed and joyful examples of our current attempts to see him not as a man “for all time” but as one demonstrably and instructively rooted in his day. Because our knowledge of Shakespeare has holes in it you could push a house through, much of both authors’ work is speculative, but they are as cheerfully undogmatic and as richly knowledgeable of their period as you could hope for. In Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton), Stephen Greenblatt shows us Shakespeare emerging out of the Elizabethan world of nursery rhymes, the fast-vanishing Catholic rituals and saint-days of his youth, the gaps between aristocrat and commoner waiting to be leapt, the word-rich air of the London theatres and the sparking proximity of political and religious change; but he gives us too a hint of how the gravity-bending enormity of Shakespeare’s genius—gifts, I was going to say, but what can you speak of with Shakespeare but genius?—transcended and reshaped that world as well as being shaped by it. In A Year in the Life of Shakespeare 1599 (Harper Collins) James Shapiro sharpens his focus on the intertwining of one’s year’s events—the invasion of Ireland in pursuit of Tyrone, the building of the Globe Theatre, the Bishop’s Ban and a spate of book-burning, controversies over the Jacobean succession and the date of Easter, the rumors of Spanish invasion, and, behind it all, the rise and fall of Essex—and matches their influence to Shakespeare’s theatrical output: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and the first version and revision of Hamlet (he is particularly good on this last). It is, in a sense, “When Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” as in when he stepped from being the leading poet and playwright of his day to being the man whose genius beggars explication, comparison or praise. Both books are several evenings’ first-rate education and entertainment; either may be called, in Greenblatt’s phrase, “A token of the special delight Shakespeare bestows on everything.” Both books have bibliographical essays that can supply you with years of Bardographical reading. If you are hunting for the facts and nothing but, go to Stanley Schoenbaum’s splendid William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford, 1975). Of recent criticism, Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead, 1998) is a play-by-play analysis; you might not agree with everything Bloom says, but his knowledge and love of Shakespeare is potent and pleasurable on every page. Of the plays in Shapiro’s focus, Henry V and Hamlet have both been given adventurous and impressive film versions by Kenneth Branagh, superbly cast and available on DVD. One of the formative events in my own Bardolatry was seeing Helen Mirren play Rosalind in a BBC version of As You Like It in 1978; it too, praise be, is now to be found on disc. Soon to be issued on DVD is the BBC series Playing Shakespeare, in which the great dramaturge John Barton coached a number of the best current English stage-actors through the paces of acting Shakespeare. The book Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide is the text of the programs and is good reading as well. The discs will not be cheap, but you’ll be able to get them through Netflix. They’re terrific.

And when you’re ready for dessert with more tales of treading the boards, read Peter Hay’s Theatrical Anecdotes (Oxford, 1987), or perhaps Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie's (Mariner Books) her mordantly funny 1982 novel of a London school for child actors. Break a leg.

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