Six New Titles on Shakespeare

By David Keymer

Bate, Jonathan & Dora Thornton. Shakespeare: Staging the World. Oxford Univ. Jun. 2012. 304p. illus. index. ISBN 9780199915019. $39.95. LIT
This is a handsomely illustrated companion to the British Museum’s exhibition of the same name (open from July 19‚ November 25, 2012). The volume is substantial enough, owing to its graphics, to stand on its own merits as a coffee-table book. After introductory chapters on London and “Arden” (i.e., rural England), subsequent chapters are tied to particular plays, from Julius Caesar to The Tempest. The concluding chapter discusses the bard’s legacy worldwide. Bate (provost, Worcester Coll., Univ. of Oxford; Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare) and Thornton (curator, Renaissance collections, British Museum; The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy) are noted scholars but don’t get much chance to flex their muscles in this volume, whose strength lies in the images, which are superb. VERDICT The book provides useful detail, primarily visual, for the reader seeking to understand Shakespeare and his world from an object-driven perspective.

Ellis, David. The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies. Edinburgh Univ., dist. by Columbia Univ. 2012. 192p. index. ISBN 9780748646661. $95. LIT
In this meaty little book, Ellis (English literature, Univ. of Kent; Byron in Geneva) takes on the spate of biographies of Shakespeare in recent decades. With incisive scholarship and wit, he demonstrates that most have been written in the absence of credible evidence: authors infer details of Shakespeare’s life and beliefs from information about the times, unverifiable anecdotes and jokes, sometimes even the sheer lack of evidence (e.g., Shakespeare must have been “discrete” and “concealing” because his name seldom appeared in the public records). Ellis reminds us that Shakespeare left no letters, journals, or diaries and that contemporary accounts of him are few: the last significant document about the man surfaced a century ago. Lively chapters include discussion of Shakespeare’s relations with his wife, his purported Catholicism, his sexual orientation, and his retirement and death. One of the biographers Ellis skewers is Stephen Greenblatt, in whose popular Will in the World, Ellis argues, supposition typically starts as speculation but shifts to accepted truth as the book progresses. VERDICT Non-academics and academics alike should pick this it up; it’s a sleeper and strongly recommended. (Given the price of the hardcover, consider waiting for the paper edition‚ ISBN 9780748646678 $32.50‚ due out in January 2013).

Kastan, David Scott & Kathryn James. Remembering Shakespeare. Yale Univ. (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library). 2012. 80p. illus. ISBN 9780300180398. pap. $25. LIT
Kastan (English language & literature, Yale; editor, The Arden Shakespeare) and James (curator, early modern books & manuscripts, Beinecke Lib., Yale) assembled this attractive book as a companion to the exhibit they curated at the Beinecke during the first half of this year. It’s more than a mere catalog of the show. It’s a cogent and entertaining volume, copiously illustrated, on how the playwright was received in his day and how his reputation has changed over the centuries. By 1616, when Shakespeare died, 18 of his plays were in print. They weren’t seen as serious literature though, but more in the nature of souvenirs. It wasn’t until six years after his death that Shakespeare’s name first appeared on the title page of one of his plays, Romeo and Juliet, because the publisher thought his name made it marketable. The book ends with a discussion of later attempts to “improve” Shakespeare’s text and recent attempts to exhume the uncorrupted original from a succession of thoroughly corrupted published texts. VERDICT Bardolators and bibliophiles will want to read this attractive book, which contains much useful information about our greatest writer. It lacks a full bibliography and an index.

Landrigan, Stephen & Quais Akbar Omar. Shakespeare in Kabul. Haus, dist. by Consortium. 2012. 230p. photogs. ISBN 97811907973208. pap. $18.95. LIT
For a short while after the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan, local hopes ran high. Western culture no longer seemed forbidden. In 2005, Afghani actors collaborated with a French director to perform Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. It was the first time in 30 years that Shakespeare had been performed in the country or that men and women had appeared on stage together there. Landrigan, who spent some years in Afghanistan, tells their story, which is both exciting and inspiring. There was the forbidding task of translating Shakespeare’s difficult language into Dari, the native tongue selected for performance; the challenge in casting and rehearsing the play (the actors called the French director “Madame Earthquake” because of her strong frustration about her inability to communicate with them); the excitement of performance. Soon, violence erupted in Afghanistan again and the moment was gone. Still, it had been there. VERDICT An Afghani was asked why he liked Shakespeare. He replied, “He makes you laugh in one eye, and cry in the other.” That’s magical, and so is this book! It deserves a wide readership.

Smith, Emma. The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide. Cambridge Univ. 2012. c.257p. photogs. index. ISBN 9780521195232. $75; pap. ISBN 9780521149723. $18.99. LIT
Smith (English, Hertford Coll.; Univ. of Oxford; The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare) has produced a useful though not very deep survey of the corpus of Shakespeare’s work, both plays and poems, presented here in alphabetical order by title, with no entry longer than six pages. Each entry tells when the work was written, how many lines it runs and, for the plays, the percentage in verse compared to prose and the major characters’ shares of the lines. Smith then provides a brief plot summary, discusses the work’s content and composition and the plays’ performances, and concludes with a brief discussion of themes and interpretations. VERDICT There’s nothing meaty here but it should prove helpful for novices. The book’s principal readers will be students, who will find it useful in digging out basic information about the bard’s plays and poems.

Thomas, Julia. Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon. Univ. of Pennsylvania. Jul. 2012. c.256p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780812244236. $34.95. LIT
In 1769, the renowned actor David Garrick organized a Shakespeare celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon. When he left the town, Garrick cursed Stratford as “the most dirty, unseemly, ill-paved wretched looking place in all Britain.” Yet less than 70 years later the house where Shakespeare was born and raised came up for auction and its preservation became a national crusade, though not every class embraced the cause equally. Thomas (Ctr. for Editorial & Intertextual Research, Cardiff Univ.; Pictorial Victorians) asks what change in values had occurred that made Victorians see Shakespeare’s birthplace as pivotal to an appreciation of him. Her book isn’t without flaws‚ the penultimate chapter, on what today’s tourists should do in Stratford, seems unconnected to the rest of the book, and the author cites au courant theoreticians even when not needed. Yet the core of the book is a substantive discussion of the purchase and renovation of Shakespeare’s birthplace and how Victorian values (e.g., regarding authenticity) affected the restoration efforts. VERDICT This book may be of most interest to those pursuing museum or tourism studies, or students of Victorian England, rather than scholars of Shakespeare.

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. Let’s hear it for David Ellis! Finally, a Shakespeare scholar with the courage to debunk the whole lot of speculative biographies! It is shameful that “scholars” such as Stephen Greenblatt have lost their moral compass in promulgating myths about Shakespeare.