Alexander Waugh

Shakespeare with or without the waffle

Two new books take a radically different approach, but the lively 30-Second Shakespeare beats the academic ‘alternative biography’ hands down

Shakespeare with or without the waffle
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30-Second Shakespeare

Ros Barber and Mark Rylance

Ivy Press, pp. 160, £

The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells

CUP, pp. 370, £

30-Second Shakespeare: 50 key aspects of his works, life and legacy, each explained in half a minute sounds trivial, but it isn’t. The purpose of this short, beautifully presented and fully illustrated guide is not to feed vain show-offs with sound-bites to give them something clever to say at dinner parties but, as Ros Barber puts it in her 30-second introduction, ‘to make Shakespeare interesting and comprehensible by cutting out the waffle’.

Thus the reader is invited to peruse this lively compilation of micro-essays in any order, to learn about the different themes that dominate Shakespeare’s plays, his crafty use of language, his knowledge of law, medicine and history, the context in which he wrote his plays, the problems that surround his biography and, of course, his almighty legacy.

By cutting out the waffle, Barber and her team of Shakespearean scholars have shorn the narrative of all but one or two of the silliest myths that have dogged the Shakespeare story since Charles Knight attempted the first full-length biography in 1843. ‘So what is the appropriate speed for enjoying Shakespeare?’ asks Mark Rylance in his 30-second foreword. ‘Thirty seconds? Fine with me.’ The whole book takes just an hour to read and is full of vitality — one of the most refreshing books on Shakespeare that I have come across.

By contrast, The Shakespeare Circle is a weightier anthology of 25 academic essays about individuals who knew, or are said to have known, Shakespeare. It is published by the Cambridge University Press ‘in partnership’ with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to which both of its editors are closely connected — Stanley Wells, as ‘honorary president’, and Rev Dr Paul Edmondson as ‘head of knowledge and research’. Subtitled An Alternative Biography, its editors explain that their purpose is to ‘find something of Shakespeare reflected — or perhaps refracted’ — in the various portraits that their contributors have drawn up.

Lack of historical data is a problem. We know little about Shakespeare’s siblings or his interactions with them and there is no unequivocal evidence to show that he was personally acquainted with any of the great literary figures of his day. In light of this, Edmondson and Wells encourage their contributors to express their ‘longing’ for historical data through ‘speculation’.

The results are interesting. Most of them exploit this licence to make Shakespeare appear more middle-class and better connected than the documentary record would otherwise suggest. David Fallow speculates that Shakespeare originally came to London as a wool-broker, which may help to explain why his monument at Stratford originally portrayed a man clutching a wool-pack; Lachlan Mackinnon speculates that Shakespeare’s elder daughter, Susanna (who could not recognise her husband's handwriting), was a Latinist: ‘maybe she playfully noted the odd false construction’. Only Germaine Greer goes against the grain, having ‘decided’ that Shakespeare’s younger daughter, Judith, was a serving maid who could ‘write well enough’, despite the fact that she could not sign her name.

Edmondson has previously written of his and Wells’s Shakespearean work that ‘our approach to the facts and historical evidence is complex and is informed by deep knowledge in order to understand them’. To see what is meant by this we need look no further than Edmondson’s short essay on Shakespeare’s ‘editors’ Heminges and Condell. Here we learn that Shakespeare ‘inherited’ a coat of arms upon the death of his father (but that is not how grants of arms work); we learn that the ground upon which the Globe theatre was built was owned by Nicholas Bland (his name was Nicholas Brend); we learn that Shakespeare performed in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour in 1599 (he didn’t: that’s the wrong play and the wrong year); we learn that Shakespeare’s name appears upon ‘a receipt for scarlet cloth granted by royal patent on 17 May 1603 for liveries at James I’s coronation’ (it was not a ‘receipt’, the cloth was not granted ‘by royal patent’, it was not on ‘17 May 1603’ but on 15 March 1604 and it was not for ‘James I’s coronation’ as James was already crowned King of England). And so the malarkey continues, not only in Edmondson’s contribution, but right across the book which he and Wells claim to have edited.

Neither of them spots that one of their contributors twice miscounts the number of boys’ names in the Stratford register, and yet this document is held in the Birthplace Trust archives, just a short waddle from where Edmondson and Wells presumably have their desks. Nor does either appear concerned that Shakespeare’s grand-daughter is referred to 11 times as ‘Lady Elizabeth Barnard’, indicating that she was of the rank of an earl’s daughter or above. Is it not common knowledge that she was the only child of an untitled provincial doctor?

What’s to be done? Were I the Cambridge University Press I would refuse to do anything more ‘in partnership’ with the Birthplace Trust, and were I in charge at the Birthplace Trust I would gently suggest to my ‘honorary president’ and my ‘head of knowledge and research’ that they make their ‘approach to the facts and historical evidence’ a little less ‘complex’ in future.

'30-Second Shakespeare', £12.74 and 'The Shakespeare Circle', £16.14 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033