on 4 October 2014
There is so much about Shakespeare that remains mysterious and sublime; there are just two recognised portraits of him, one piece written in his own hand, and one piece of testimony definitely spoken by him. Moreover, as this fine, lavishly illustrated and coherently arranged book points out, although highly regarded by his peers in the theatre, he was not placed in higher esteem than many other playwrights. In fact it was Francis Beaumont, who died a few weeks before Shakespeare, who was accorded the honour of being buried in Westminster Abbey. It was to be the first half of the eighteenth century that was to see his elevation above his contemporaries.
This excellent book discusses his life and works in context; after all, he was someone thoroughly immersed in the -surprisingly cosmopolitan- Early Modern world, and he was inextricably tied in with contemporary views towards such groups as the Jews ("The Merchant Of Venice"), black people ("Othello"), as well as discussion concerning the budding exploration of the New World ("The Tempest"), and a growing sense of a "British identity" as opposed to an English one (his plays after James I's accession to the throne). Like everyone, Shakespeare was not impervious to the requirements of the real world, and he had adapt to specific situations; at some point in his life an actor, social climber (he spent considerable time and energy trying to get a familial coat of arms), schmoozer in search of patrons, theatre manager, schoolboy trudging through Latin grammar, and possibly poacher, too. Tempting as it may be to see him as such, Shakespeare was no isolated genius; perhaps there is a part of Shakespeare in all of us.
An essential purchase.