How many books are there about Shakespeare? A study published in the 1970s claimed a figure of 11,000, and today a search of the British Library catalogue yields 12,554 titles that contain the playwright’s name. But good short introductions to Shakespeare’s life and work are not exactly plentiful.
Students and teachers are therefore likely to welcome this up-to-date overview from Paul Edmondson, a Church of England priest who works for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Although Edmondson covers the biographical ground succinctly, as well as discussing the plays and poetry in a style that’s discreetly authoritative, his approach is unconventional. Thus he dwells longer on the early, flawed The Two Gentlemen of Verona than on King Lear — not because he believes it is better, but because it shows Shakespeare finding his feet as a practitioner of stagecraft, dramatic verse and fleet-footed characterisation. He also thinks, freshly, about what it’s like to read Shakespeare — whether aloud or to oneself — and in this vein offers five robustly sensible pages suggesting how best to engage with the sonnets.
Edmondson allows himself quite a few spry generalisations: ‘Shakespeare is a great writer about forgiveness’, ‘Shakespeare delights in comic lovemaking’, ‘In his treatment of war, Shakespeare has a lot in common with Wilfred Owen.’ These seem calculated to beget exam questions ending with the instruction ‘Discuss’. But at its best his writing is witty and humane.
Less appealing are the illustrations by Andrew Park. He makes the young Anne Hathaway look like a cross between Olive Oyl and Wallis Simpson, and a cartoon depicting Shakespeare’s death (‘Alas, poor Shakey’) is cringeworthy. Yet cheesy as some of them are, the illustrations do achieve the desired effect of making the book appear perkily accessible.
One of Edmondson’s best decisions is to pay close attention to the texture of our encounters with Shakespeare in the theatre, an arena he aptly describes as ‘a social expression of culture’. The same delight in the shared experience of watching the plays lies at the heart of Stanley Wells’s ‘actor-centred history of Shakespeare on the stage’. Wells’s scholarly yet easy-going survey begins with the performers who first inhabited Shakespeare’s roles — versatile Richard Burbage, the jokers Robert Armin and Will Kemp — and concludes with several who are still working — the ‘husky chuckler’ Judi Dench, ‘bullet headed’ Simon Russell Beale with his talent for conveying pent-up feeling, and ‘manly but huggable’ Kenneth Branagh.
In between, there are vivid portraits of Charles Macklin, found guilty of killing a colleague who had the temerity to borrow his wig, and Ira Aldridge, the black New Yorker who was disgracefully abused by many of the London critics when he appeared at Covent Garden in 1833. Naturally, there are sketches of David Garrick, whom George III apparently called ‘a great fidget’; the luminous Sarah Siddons, whose silences commanded as much respect as her melodious speeches; and Ellen Terry, whose irrepressible charm made her the darling of Victorian critics (with the notable exception of Henry James). There are comparatively obscure figures, too, such as Charlotte Cushman, a passionate American who memorably played Romeo opposite her sister Sarah’s Juliet.
Wells confines himself to stage acting and to English-speakers. The exception is Tommaso Salvini, who performed the role of Othello in Italian alongside actors speaking English, and gurgled alarmingly as he sawed at his throat with a scimitar. Meanwhile those who don’t meet Wells’s criterion of ‘interpretative genius’ include Edwin Forrest, a much-admired American actor of the 19th century, dismissed here as ‘a hunk of a man with a stentorian voice’.
In all, the book covers 39 performers, 20 of whom Wells has watched in person. He recalls Paul Scofield as Timon of Athens, dwelling on the word ‘detestable’ so that its four syllables were ‘spat out in individual gobbets’, and John Gielgud struggling with Othello’s ‘descent into animalism’ — which flustered those around him, causing Ian Bannen as Iago to become confused and say, ‘He’s almost slain, and Cassio dead — no, sorry, Roderigo’s dead.’
Wells’s writing about the actors he has seen calls to mind the critic James Agate’s image of a revelatory performance being akin to ‘a tiger leaping out on the spectator from the bush of mediocrity’. But Great Shakespeare Actors is most impressive when quarrying the more remote past, and, although it is suitable for dipping into, reading it straight through conveys a sense of how acting styles and actors’ careers have changed.
None of Wells’s subjects sounds more thrilling than the Regency hotshot Edmund Kean, who kept a pet lion and rode his stallion drunkenly up and down the steps of Drury Lane. On one occasion he awoke after a bender and exclaimed, ‘Send me Lewis or the other woman. I must have a fuck, and then I shall do.’ He got what he wanted, had a snooze, and then, half-drunk, delivered an electrifying Hamlet.