Allen & Unwin, $39.99 hb, 448 pp, 9781742371931
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still,
(Matthew Arnold, ‘Shakespeare’)
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.