The late A. D. Nuttall argues convincingly - in opposition to both literary theory's and New Historicism's "hostility to the idea of cognitive intelligence in the work of art" - that Shakespeare "was not only a master of imaginative and emotional effects but that he was also very intelligent".
Lucid and perceptive, Nuttall writes gracefully. He fortifies his interpretations with an impressive weight of learning in classics, theology, philosophy, history and art, and makes striking comparisons with later works of literature, pairing Macbeth, for example, with Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
He is also good on the relation of the plays to each other, revealing how the Roman matter in Julius Caesar reappears in Hamlet; the sea-sundered twins in The Comedy of Errors and the cross-dressing in As You Like It recombine in Twelfth Night; Shylock in The Merchant of Venice metamorphoses into Antonio in Measure for Measure; the theme of grace in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear is transmuted in Timon of Athens.
Nuttall suggests that Antonio in The Merchant of Venice and Leontes in The Winter's Tale are homosexual; that same-sex is opposed to heterosexual love, often expressed in predatory women, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet (which mixes erotic and religious imagery), Much Ado about Nothing and The Winter's Tale. And he shows how themes from Ovid, Shakespeare's favourite poet, recur throughout the plays.
The real strength of the book is Nuttall's acute explication of key lines, major characters and crucial passages. He illuminates "Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile" (Loves Labour's Lost) by explaining the thematic word has a different meaning each time: "mind", "knowledge", "eye" and "sight".
In the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, the oxymoron "civil blood" leads to multiple antitheses: sex and death, loins and death, lovers and enemies, lovers and stars. Nuttall explains in the Housman-like lines from Cymbeline, "Golden lads and girls all must,/ As chimney-sweepers, come to dust" that "the force of the lyric was in the vertiginous space between the golden people and the sooty figures - all alike ending in death".
Similarly, he says that the narrated death of Ophelia in Hamlet "is, intelligently, about the tension between lyric exaltation and cold, muddy water".
Malvolio in Twelfth Night, a thoroughly deficient human being, becomes subtly human and slightly sympathetic when he mistakenly believes he is loved. And, concludes Nuttall, the foreigner Othello is both loyal to Venice and "inescapably alien from the state to which he is true".
Analysing perhaps the most perversely disgusting yet psychologically incisive and "unexpectedly believable" sexual scene in Shakespeare - Richard III's seduction of Lady Anne after he has murdered both the King and her husband - Nuttall reveals the complex involvement of deformity and sexual prowess.
Richard demonically transforms Anne's passionate hatred into a pathological fascination, insinuating himself - through a kind of "mental rape" - into her heart and then into her bed.
Nuttall sees Richard II (c 1595) as the momentous turning point in the career of Shakespeare, whose "keen interest in subjectivity is a highly intelligent response to the rise of Protestantism".
In this play, Shakespeare moves from concrete to abstract thought, from external motivation to "the discovery of human interiority". Richard's "hollow crown" speech is "simultaneously a truancy from crisis, a flight into legend and imagination, and an uncannily accurate perception of what is really coming".
Even Nuttall's reading of Measure for Measure in terms of Ophite Gnosticism, which believes God is evil, is plausibly stimulating, if not entirely convincing.
Shakespeare the Thinker - with Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World and James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) - is the best book on the subject in recent years.
Shakespeare the Thinker
Author - A. D. Nuttall
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 428
Price - Â£19.99
ISBN - 9780300119282