Cover of book: This Is Shakespeare

Emma Smith
This Is Shakespeare

Let me count the ways in which Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare is the ideal book of its moment for unlocking the works of that most miraculous, mysterious and be-pedestalled figure in English literature.

First, but least obtrusive in her fleet, flowing, crisply rendered primer, are Smith’s scholarly chops. She is professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of Oxford, has written widely on the playwright and poet in more academic contexts, digitised Shakespeare’s First Folio and helped authenticate a new copy of that rarest of rare books. She argued so convincingly that All’s Well That Ends Well was co-authored with Thomas Middleton that both playwrights now share writing credits in new editions of the play.

More important is how lightly she wears that learning here. The most abstruse scholarly arguments are simplified without being dumbed down, the merest filaments of textual data made to glow with significance. Sigmund Freud and Homer Simpson are deployed with equal interpretive brio.

Nor can the breadth of Smith’s knowledge be gainsaid. She uses primary sources, contemporary theory, biography, performance histories, close reading and a salting of pop-culture references in capsule chapters that interrogate 20 plays in the Shakespeare corpus, cracking them open to reveal some untouched kernel – finding some loose thread to untangle the knottiness of his language and thought.

Gender, sexuality, race, identity, politics, theatre craft, British history – you name it, she uses it, in a sometimes-radical upsetting of established ideas about the man and his works. What she does not do, except through the sheer attentiveness she brings to bear on the plays, is fall into an automatic reverence, and this may be the most refreshing aspect of all.

Having furnished the usual list of reasons to admire Shakespeare in her opening paragraphs, Smith then tears them to ribbons. “Lots of what we trot out about Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and the divine right of kings and ‘Merrie England’ and his enormous vocabulary blah blah blah is just not true, and just not important.”

It’s the “blah blah blah” that shouts here: it’s the sound of a highly intelligent and dedicated scholar sweeping her desk clear of a pile of dusty papers, ready to start from scratch. And what she discovers in doing so is a figure who speaks – urgently, eloquently – to us (all of us, not just the usual implied straight, white, male, middle-class reader) in the here and now.

Take that most PG of Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staple of a thousand school lunchtime performances. Beneath the hectic slapstick, the panto whimsy of the play, is a text swarming with dark and dangerous ideas. The character of Puck, Smith writes, is “associated with rough sexual energy and fertility, not with the balletic magic tricks of a children’s party”. His origins lie in a hobgoblin named Robin Goodfellow, who would have been immediately identifiable to Elizabethan audiences as a creature with a potentially diabolic background. Smith goes on to explore a play that flirts with a sexual menu “from bestiality to pederasty, from wife-swapping to sexual masochism”.

Having shaken the cage of Shakespeare’s comedies, Smith turns her attention to the history plays – prime among them Richard III. She avers that the titular character’s “hold on the politics of his country is matched by Shakespeare’s fascist dramaturgy which is designed explicitly to showcase his charismatic authority”. For all of Richard’s moral ugliness, Smith says, “he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside it. It’s almost as if the play’s popularity itself testifies to a kind of audience masochism.”

This is a chapter we leave understanding how it is possible for a crowd to root for an openly criminal rogue – an insight not without contemporary resonances.

Whether it is the fatalistic, rushed, predetermined quality of Romeo and Juliet – which Smith writes is “shaped as the structural equivalent of premature ejaculation” – or Hamlet, where she reconfigures Prince Hamlet, that free-floating exemplar of modern alienation, as a historically grounded figure who speaks to late-Elizabethan anxieties around political succession and religious upheaval, Smith renders even the most well-worn tragedies new and strange.

The point is not that the author’s readings are definitive: she herself says they are not. Shakespeare is too “gappy”, too “ambiguous” in approach – too concerned with posing questions as opposed to answering them – to provide any easy summation.

Rather, her fresh approaches reveal something crucial about Shakespeare’s ongoing relevance. By grounding the plays in their moment, by attending carefully to textual clues, Smith achieves something paradoxical: she opens up potential parallels between his world and ours.

“Shakespeare lived and wrote in a world that was on the move,” begins Smith. His plays occupy, she says,

the gap between older visions of a world run by divine fiat, and more contemporary ideas about the centrality of human agency to causality … [These gaps] open up space to think differently about the world and experience it from another point of view.

His works hold our attention, not in spite of their incomplete nature and narrative instability, but because of them: “they need us, in all our idiosyncratic diversity and with the perspective of our post-Shakespearean world, to make sense”.

Shakespeare, she concludes, “is here less an inert noun than an active verb: ‘to Shakespeare’ might be defined as the activity of posing questions, unsettling certainties, challenging orthodoxies, opening out endings”.

The result is a book for “grown-ups who don’t want textbook or schoolroom platitudes”. It should sit beside Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare as an impeccable introduction for interested lay readers.

Penguin Press, 368pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 29, 2019 as "Emma Smith, This Is Shakespeare".

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Geordie Williamson is a writer and critic.

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