Lavishly illustrated, The Globe Guide to Shakespeare is a joy to behold and a pleasure to read. Written by Andrew Dickson, with contributions by Joe Staines, this isn’t a musty, fusty academic treatise thick with jargon. As the authors say in the introduction, “Above all, this isn’t intended to be a textbook, and we hope it’s fun to read: our ambition throughout has been to demystify Shakespeare, to show there are interesting ways of thinking about his works without saturating them in academic jargon.”
This is how the well-read write if blessed with felicity of expression. Instead of an academic tome, The Globe Guide to Shakespeare is a comprehensive Bard primer or refresher discussing his life, works, stage productions, film adaptations and literary interpretations with the insight of a connoisseur.
This is how the book begins:
“There are many Shakespeares. As the years pass, they multiply: theatre is an inquisitive and unpredictable medium, and Shakespeare, the world’s most revived playwright, keeps mutating and evolving… “
This is a narrative style favoured by journalists writing a long story.
And, indeed, Andrew Dickson is a journalist, author and broadcaster who writes about culture for the Guardian and has another book and several essays on Shakespeare.
Unlike a scholar hard-wired to dissect and analyze, The Globe Guide to Shakespeare isn’t shy to generalize, and this is done in a cadence that is music to the ears. Take this passage from the introduction:
“Just as there are many Shakespeares, there is no single way of explaining what makes his work so appealing. His plays and poems aren’t just astonishing works of art, but gripping pieces of drama. They’re remarkable social documents, but often touched with magic and fantasy. They’re full of optimism and comedy about the human condition, yet also shot through with pain, anger and despair. And although they’re of their historical moment, they touch something that feels universal. The completeness of Shakespeare’s vision remains unmatched, whether he’s writing about large-scale politics or the most intimate of love affairs. He is the most exciting, challenging and awe-inspiring writer in the language, and in many different languages too.”
What is this but generalization? There is no analysis here. But isn’t the language beautiful? We learn nothing new here but are carried along by the eloquence. An eloquence derived from the use of evocative words such as “magic” and “fantasy” and well-paced, balanced sentences, yoking antithetical ideas such as “optimism” and “despair” in the same sentence with the conjunction “but”, and varying the pace by mixing short and long sentences.
The Merchant of Venice
The Globe Guide to Shakespeare is more than well-written; it’s not short on percipience. Its insights can be deep and memorable as in its introduction to The Merchant of Venice:
Viewed one way, The Merchant of Venice looks like anti-Semitic propaganda: a Christian merchant becomes indebted to a rapacious Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who seizes on the merchant’s bankruptcy to demand repayment in the grisly form of a pound of the debtor’s flesh. Viewed another way, the play’s most tragic character is Shylock himself: a man abused by the Christians of Venice, robbed and deserted by his daughter, and finally humiliated by being forced to abandon his religion and convert to Christianity. Both sides are there in this brilliant and troubling play, and it’s easy to feel they’re irreconcilable; what Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability” – his capacity for making audiences see things from multiple angles – here makes for disturbing viewing. Shylock may be descended from the devilish Jewish villains that were a staple of Christian storytelling, but Shakespeare makes it impossible to view him as straightforward evil; while the Christians of the play, for all their apparent civility, are racist, fixated by money and in the end brutally vicious. Yet The Merchant of Venice, which contains so much hatred, is also a comedy of love, and it’s in this – in the collision between the two folk stories that were Shakespeare’s sources – that the play throws up its most searching questions, in particular the involvement of the wealthy heroine Portia in the grubby battle for money and life at the centre of the plot. It is impossible to sit on the fence when watching The Merchant of Venice, and the issues it raises about religious intolerance and conflict seem more pressing now than ever.
The Globe Guide to Shakespeare explores all his 39 plays as well as his poems. Each play and poem (A Lover’s Complaint, The Rape of Lucrece, The Sonnets, Venus and Adonis) is discussed in a separate chapter, beginning with an introductory paragraph followed by a synopsis, dates, sources and textual history and an interpretative essay.
Romeo and Juliet
The introduction to Romeo and Juliet is almost poetry:
It is perhaps the most timeless Shakespearean image of all: the star-crossed lovers, united by passion yet doomed to separation. But Romeo and Juliet is all about time, and the fact that the lovers are given so little of it lends their love affair a volatile and turbulent intensity. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet fall in love on the instant, are married almost immediately, and are allowed just one precious night together before their feuding families drive them apart. They are not permitted to grow old, in other words, and Romeo and Juliet describes better than perhaps any other Shakespearean work what it feels like to be young. Indeed, it draws its power from violent conflict: between youth and age, life and death, fate and free will. Some have felt this makes it too schematic – the work of a man still learning his craft. Yet Romeo and Juliet is also a bold theatrical experiment, one that Shakespeare would never quite repeat. It begins in a world of bantering comedy and teenage rebellion, but when danger and death intervene, full-blooded tragedy consumes the action. The play at once portrays the power of romantic ideals and their fragility in the face of crushing social forces. The lovers may attempt to transcend their fractured world , but they are in the end unable to escape it.
The Globe Guide to Shakespeare is a wonderful collection of Shakespeareana, combining insightful readings with a wealth of critical references and pictures taken from stage productions and film adaptations of his works. This is a book for browsing rather than sustained reading. But it’s rewarding and enjoyable. The authors say: “It’s worth remembering that no one owns Shakespeare: how you respond is entirely up to you.” That’s true, but books like this help one appreciate Shakespeare all the more.