To read or not to read: the 10 best books on Shakespeare
On the 400th anniversary of his death, a flurry of new books discover Shakespeare in the most unlikely places
Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30
'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety," said Enobarbus of the queen in Antony and Cleopatra. Change the gender and the same could describe the man who composed the lines. Shakespeare wrote sonnets, narrative poems and plays that encompassed tragedy, history and comedy, as well as others so unclassifiable that we call some "romances", others "problem plays".
He was an actor first, a playwright second, a serial dramatic collaborator, a shareholder in his theatrical company and a prosperous family man of substantial property in London and Stratford. In his lifetime, he saw many of his plays published, the reading public drawn to his "great feast of language" and stories that imagined a world reaching from Bermuda to North Africa, Greece and India, chronicling the lives of English kings, Danish princes, Italian noblewomen, Jewish merchants and Moorish generals.
It should come as no surprise that such infinite variety is reflected in a host of books published this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
Academics, poets, novelists, musicians, curators, journalists and theatre practitioners have all put pen to paper in attempts to understand the Bard and his influence, from Stratford and London to East Africa and China. The results are, by turns, brilliant, ingenious, disappointing and sometimes downright infuriating.
The most striking common trait among these books is a desire to explore Shakespeare's afterlife beyond the shores of "this sceptred isle", in places where we might least expect to find him. Like many of the plays, Edward Wilson-Lee's Shakespeare in Swahililand (William Collins, €26.50) is virtually unclassifiable, part memoir of his Kenyan childhood, part travelogue and part literary criticism.
Pursuing Shakespeare's legacy throughout the Swahili-speaking parts of East Africa, Wilson-Lee moves from the 19th-century imperial adventures of Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley, who explored the continent's interior armed with their Complete Works, to the 2012 performance of Cymbeline in Arabic at the Globe by the South Sudan Theatre Company.
Along the way, Wilson-Lee uncovers captivating glimpses of the "ever-living poet", how Shakespeare affected the lives of the missionaries, railway labourers, colonial settlers, revolutionaries and politicians that made modern-day East Africa.
Some of Wilson-Lee's inclusions are bizarre: his chapter on Che Guevara's convalescence from his failed revolutionary foray into the Congo in Dar es Salaam in 1966, during which he was given a book on "the theatre of Shakespeare", leads into an extremely tenuous argument about the Argentine revolutionary's self-identification with The Tempest (although there is no evidence Guevara even read it).
The book's great strength is Wilson-Lee's own East African heritage. Despite the richness of Wilson-Lee's material, one voice cancels out the other. When the book ends, on the banks of the Nile, it feels as though Shakespeare too drifts past.
In contrast, Andrew Dickson makes a cheerful virtue of his parochial Englishness in a far punchier whistle-stop tour of Shakespeare's globe, Worlds Elsewhere (Bodley Head, €26.50). Dickson travels from Europe to America, India and China to discover why the work of an untravelled writer like Shakespeare flourished in such unlikely places as communist East Germany and apartheid South Africa and why more people now encounter his work in translation than in his original language.
He excavates the remarkable story of the "Robben Island Shakespeare", a Complete Works smuggled onto the island in the Seventies, its passages signed by the prisoners. Nelson Mandela wrote his name beside the lines from Julius Caesar that begin: "Cowards die many times before their deaths". Dickson is bewitched by India and its Shakespearean tradition, from the Raj to contemporary Bollywood versions. When he confesses that he could go on chasing adaptations of Shakespeare across the world forever, a comforting Hindu professor retorts: "Isn't that rather the point?"
Asking 30 contemporary poets to respond to his sonnets was always likely to produce a mixed bag, and so it proves in On Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (Bloomsbury Arden, €16.99). The formal conventions of the 14-line Shakespearean sonnet present a challenge to any poet. Nick Laird imagines a competition among the world's poets, conceding anticlimactically that "they could not start to get down half your ways". Roger McGough gives up, composing a poem made up of 14 opening lines from Shakespeare's own sonnets. Simon Armitage's 'Di-Di-Dah-Dah-Di-Dit' is simply made up of "di-dah-di-dit". Others are more poignant. Wendy Cope's version of sonnet 22, a meditation on age with a twist on enduring love, is a triumph; Carol Ann Duffy's dazzling response to sonnet 116 reinvents the idea of "impediments" to true marriage.
The Hogarth Shakespeare, a series of contemporary novelisations of his plays, has got off to a flying start with Jeanette Winterson's haunting reworking of A Winter's Tale, The Gap of Time, and Howard Jacobson's Shylock is my Name (both Hogarth, €22.50), a clear-eyed reflection on modern Jewish identity that translates The Merchant of Venice to the gauche, aspirational world of Cheshire's "golden triangle".
The series' future highlights include Margaret Atwood on The Tempest in Hag-Seed (due for release in October) and Edward St Aubyn on King Lear (scheduled for 2018) but they have hard acts to follow.
James Shapiro picks up the story in 1606 (Faber, €26.50), when we find the 42-year-old Shakespeare no longer the new kid on the block, but instead facing a creative crisis under the new king, James I, having written only a couple of plays between 1603 and 1606. With the skill he displayed in his 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Shapiro reveals how the playwright once again spotted - and rode - a wave of political discontent, this time surrounding the previous year's Gunpowder Plot, to produce three of his greatest tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.
Like all great Shakespeareans, Shapiro is equally attentive to the plays' power on the stage and on the page. Emma Smith's delightful Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (OUP, €31.60) demonstrates that the posthumous publication in 1623 of Shakespeare's First Folio was as important as the plays' performances in securing his reputation.
David Crystal's Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (OUP, €32.50), on the other hand, shows how the printed word can mislead. We've been mispronouncing everything for generations, he reveals, from Shakespeare's verse to his rhymes and puns. Hamlet and Horatio were probably pronounced "Amlet" and "Oratio"; once we know that the Greek warrior Ajax was pronounced "a jakes", also a word for lavatory, his name becomes a dirty joke about defecating.
Research in Original Pronunciation is starting to change how we teach and perform Shakespeare. It is good news for writers such as Wilson-Lee and Dickson who would like to see the stranglehold of Received Pronunciation broken and the language globalised. It also means we can get more of Shakespeare's jokes, although with "hour" pronounced "whore" and "woman" pronounced "woe-man", there may be a surfeit of riches.
But the only book sure to endure beyond this year's celebrations will be the one to appear with the least fanfare. Shakespeare's Binding Language by John Kerrigan (OUP, €53) is a massive, complicated and brilliant interpretation of the oaths, vows and promises that bind the characters in virtually every one of Shakespeare's plays (as well as his sonnets, as Kerrigan explains in a triumphant finale). The histories are riven with revenge oaths that clash with vows of political allegiance, the comedies are replete with lovers' broken vows, while oaths give way to spells and curses in King Lear and Macbeth. The book is full of revelations: Shakespeare's most prolific swearer is the Irish MacMorris in Henry V, which leads Kerrigan into an ingenious account of Ireland's place in the play.
Shakespeare will only endure if we continually reinvent and reinterpret him, and Kerrigan has done just that. We will still be digesting his masterly work on vows and oaths by 2023 and the next Shakespeare celebration, the 400th anniversary of the First Folio's publication. I swear.