My Summer of Shakespeare (Part II)

My Summer of Shakespeare continues.

Summer of Shakespeare: This may be a picture of Will -- or not

Over the weekend, I read Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, The World as Stage, and have Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare making its way towards the top of the reading stack. And this evening, I saw the second installment of the Globe Theatre’s cinema series. Tonight’s play was Henry IV, Part I, which I enjoyed very much, although I wish I had had the time to read the play before seeing it.

Bryson’s book isn’t going to win any awards for scholarship, but it is an entertaining read that condenses a lot of Shakespeare scholarship into a slim, readable volume aimed not at the scholar but at any person who will read or sees in performance Shakespeare’s work and wonder: Who was this genius that gave us some of the most endearing, amazing, beautiful works in the English language? Chapters in this book read more like a newsweekly article than an academic one, but one that, nevertheless, may make you think next time you hear someone pontificating about Shakespeare and the current Globe theater in London. (Hint: If they tell you it is an exact replica and your CrapDetector isn’t zinging off the scale, it is broken.) Mostly what Bryson presents is how little we know about Shakespeare.

It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. From the selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things — as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.

Of course, this brief quote, which appears at the end of the first short chapter, makes one wonder about the other blurb on the dust jacket which claims that Bryson gets to what matters most: the writer’s life. Bryson works to inform the reader that we don’t know much about anything about Shakespeare’s life. The CrapDetector is zinging – ignore that dust cover.

I know that many have built entire careers around Shakespeare and the so-called ‘problems’ with his life and work. Was someone else ‘Shakespeare’? Did others collaborate with him on his plays? Was he gay? Why did he leave his wife his second-best bed? Bryson writes that one would take 20 years at the rate of one work a day to read the body of work that is Shakespearean criticism. But this makes me wonder: does it really matter at all? I understand why — especially now when so little of anyone’s life can remain hidden — we want to know all that we can about a writer. But, if MacBeth was written by someone other than the person who penned Hamlet or Lear, or any of the histories, or comedies, would it make one bit of difference in how we experience and interpret those plays? I think that is precisely the point.

Next up in Summer of Shakespeare: Next week I head to NYC to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions at the Park Avenue Armory. I’m hoping to get a few of the plays read before I go. I can’t wait!

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