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Shakespeare 101, and a Pleasant Read as Well Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     November 29, 2011    
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Shakespeare 101, and a Pleasant Read as Well
  • Shakespeare For All Time
  • by Stanley Wells
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Published in 2003
  • 5

Stanley Wells is one of the most eminent and erudite of Shakespearean scholars, and while there are many who may be as well-versed in all aspects of Shakespeare studies, far fewer possess the ability to transmit that knowledge quite as clearly for the average reader. Shakespeare For All Time is a clear demonstration of this ability.

A large, richly illustrated volume with a well-sized font, Shakespeare For All Time offers an introduction to the study of Shakespeare, including chapters on his life, on his works, and on his popular and critical fortunes over the course of the centuries. Wells writes in an easy, conversational style as he takes the reader through the exceptionally large canvas he has chosen. Though he does not always avoid scholarliness – I cannot offhand think of another book for the general reader that casually uses the word ‘architectonic’ – Wells manages the feat of neither insulting his audience’s intelligence nor going over their heads. Reading this book is like spending an evening in a comfortable living room in the company of a witty and learned companion who leaves us almost unaware of how much we’ve learned as he speaks.

Unabashedly personal, especially in the last chapter where Wells begins discussing matters in which he himself played a part, Shakespeare For All Time mingles solid scholarly fact with anecdotes and minor details that immeasurably enrich the narrative – who knew that the First Folio, open at Hamlet, was the first secular book to appear in an English painting, or that to evade Puritan sanctions against the theatre in America actors would call plays like Richard III ‘moral lectures’? Wells is never dogmatic, and makes his way through many questions and theories that have been raised over time – the story that William Davenant was Shakespeare’s natural son, or whether the seal ring found in a Stratford field really is the playwright’s – and fairly gives evidence on both sides, though he generally makes his own opinion known. He is clear, however, that it is simply his opinion, however well-founded, and not a provable fact. This is rather refreshing.

The selection of illustrations is also worthy of note. Though the numbering of the color plates does not necessarily mesh with the references to them in the text, the sweep of Wells’s topic is matched by the diversity of the pictures – from reproductions of paintings to etchings of play scenes, portraits of artists, satirical sketches and photos of productions, a number of which make the point far better than text can. The evolution of how the plays are seen is never better demonstrated than by the juxtaposition of Charlotte Cushman as Lady Macbeth in the 19th century – an intimidating, grim, thin-lipped, middle-aged battleaxe wearing a helmet strapped under her chin – with a photo of Sinéad Cusack in 1986, all wavy blonde hair and melting eyes. Nor is it possible to wipe from one’s mind the engraving of James Quin playing Coriolanus in the 18th century. It is useless to know that he is dressed in the accepted style for heroes at the time; the fact remains that he is a large man wearing a tutu.

The book is not without the occasional flaw. Dr. Wells is of course the head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and at times this is a bit obvious. The chapter on ‘Shakespeare and Stratford’ in particular sometimes reads like an extended tourist brochure, hawking for custom. Still, this is a minor flaw; in general Shakespeare For All Time is a superb introduction to the subject, suited to anyone who wants to find out a little more than they learned in class, whether about Shakespeare’s life, writings, or posthumous fortunes, and likely to leave them wanting to delve deeper than a book this length can quite afford to go.

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