Shakespeare

Ambitious, arrogant, talented, brave, learned, truculent, and convivial: Ben Jonson was too outstanding, too odd, and too contrary to be taken as a creature of his time. Yet he had so wide-ranging a life that to write his biography is to capture, in little, a great part of his remarkable age.

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When Arnold wrote his famous sonnet, he could have been anticipating John Bell’s book, which repeatedly asks provocative questions about the man and the work that have been his life’s inspiration – and arrives at much the same conclusion as Arnold. We don’t go to Shakespeare for mere knowledge, but for insight, challenge, and enrichment, and perhaps to help us know ourselves and others better. Further, as Bell says: ‘There is no worldwide conspiracy to keep Shakespeare alive. He survives because actors want to go on performing him and audiences want to listen.’ These sentences come from his second-last page, and the rest of the book helps us to understand why.

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Literary critics used to adopt a persona claiming disinterested separation from the text being analysed. Critical theory, in particular post-colonial and gender studies, eroded this stance, showing that criticism is always self-interested, concealing or inadvertently revealing tacit assumptions stemming from the critic’s biography, class, gender, and political persuasions. As a result, it is common nowadays for critics to be more self-aware about their own value systems. In some ways, this returns us to a Romantic understanding of interpretation reflected in Hazlitt’s ‘It is we who are Hamlet’, Coleridge’s ‘I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so’, and Keats’s ‘axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved on the pulses ... you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done’.

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Lawyer Nicki Greenberg spent six years converting The Great Gatsby to graphic novel format, an interesting project that was universally acclaimed and respected... ... (read more)

Shakespeare, Sex, and Love by Stanley Wells & Shakespeare’s Freedom by Stephen Greenblatt

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February 2011, no. 328

One of Angelina Jolie’s first starring roles was as Shakespeare’s Juliet in Love Is All There Is (1996). Or rather, she plays Gina Malacici, a Bronx schoolgirl fiercely protected from life by her wealthy, restaurant-owning Italian parents, recruited to play Juliet in the school play when the leading actress injures herself falling off the balcony. Faced ...

Anyone who remembers Julie Taymor’s 1999 version of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first published play, will not be expecting a reverential treatment of what is reputedly his last, but Taymor’s new film does move more or less inexorably to the play’s final wisdom: ‘The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.’ The Tempest is a d ...

Shakespeare the Thinking is the final and posthumously published book of the Oxford critic A.D. Nuttall, who died unexpectedly in January 2007. Pitched at a wider readership than most of his earlier writings, the book is the culmination of Nuttall’s lifetime thinking about Shakespeare, and the work by which his remarkable originality as a critic will no doubt be most widely recognised.

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Those who would have us believe that William Shakespeare was not the author of the poems and plays that bear his name – J. Thomas Looney and Sherwood Silliman come to mind – like to encourage the idea that almost nothing is known about his life. In fact, we have quite a lot of information about Shakespeare’s life, career and the cultural environment in which he wrote. What we do lack is any direct testimony from the man himself. His opinions are lost to us. There are no letters or journals that might illuminate his private thoughts and feelings. The basic facts of Shakespeare’s life (1564–1616) are largely set out in official documents recording births, deaths, marriages and legal transactions. If we must inquire into the nature of his personal relationships, the options are either to try and extrapolate his views from his poetry and dramatic works (an impossibly compromised practice), or else turn to circumstantial evidence and weigh up possibilities.

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In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare is referred to as the happy hunting ground of all minds which have lost their balance. He is also referred to by Buck Mulligan, even less reverently, though with a distinct nationalist tilt, as ‘Shakespeare. I seem to recall the name. Ah, to be sure, the fellow who writes like Synge.’ Well, there probably are analogies between the greatest of all dramatists, who could also, as Donald Davie pointed out, use any word in the language he chose (and hence manipulated an extended diction), and the chap who set the Abbey Theatre stage on fire with the dynamic stylisation of Irish peasant speech in The Playboy of the Western World. Just as there are analogies between the poet who could write King Lear and the lonely Jesuit who wrote, ‘O the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer no-man-fathomed: / Hold them cheap may who ne’er hung there’, and all those tragic sonnets. Not to mention the fellow who posed in front of the bookshop sign in Paris.

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