Not every actor could write a credible academic book, but Oliver Ford Davies, once a university lecturer, has. Himself the father of a daughter, he has acted a number of Shakespeare’s fathers of daughters over a 50-year period. Moreover, he has read and acted in other plays of the period, too, and has had the benefit of a classical education (at the same school as Marlowe, the King’s School, Canterbury), which sensitises him to the importance of classical precedent in the plays and helps him to understand the value of source study. Finally, he has familiarised himself with the current state of the critical and scholarly conversation about Shakespeare’s plays. He incorporates critics’ comments judiciously and crisply, testing them against both the text and his own theatrical experience, and he knows which plays (and which bits of them) are now believed to be collaborative, using the information to put forward a considered and convincing account of Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist.
Having acted in 25 Shakespeare plays, Ford Davies discusses 24 of them, in chronological order and grouped by genre into “Early plays”, “Comedies”, “Tragedies and tragicomedies” and “Late plays”. The book concludes with three briefer chapters (whose contents, he suggests, will not be news to academics but might be to students – although I learned things from them, too) about Shakespeare’s own daughters; father-daughter relationships in the period; and father-daughter relationships in plays from 1585 to 1620.
Ford Davies does not put forward a thesis – he ends the introduction with “Some pattern may, or may not, emerge” – but he does offer a great many aperçus, particularly about plays in which he has acted. The book is invariably sensible and readable, but it becomes more than that when he writes about parts that he knows from the inside, such as Old Capulet and Polonius. He is particularly interesting on how the earliest performances of Romeo and Juliet might have shaped Shakespeare’s subsequent writing choices, showing him what he could and couldn’t expect from the performers at his disposal, and very good on how effective it can be when an actor imagines a motive for his character even if there is no way for him to reveal that motive to the audience (as when he played Don John in Much Ado about Nothing and told himself that he had made a pass at Claudio and been spurned). His actor’s eye and ear tell him things that scholars tend not to catch, such as that in his early plays Shakespeare struggles to handle scenes with several characters.
Ford Davies has a nice turn of phrase and, contrary to the general image of actors, seems not to have an ego: this is a book about the plays, not about him. Although his suggestion that the second half of Much Ado belongs to Leonato (whom he has played) might initially look like a classic actor’s conviction that his own part is the most important, he is able to adduce convincing support from the text and structure of the play. This is a useful and enjoyable book written from a perspective that very few people would be able to offer.
Lisa Hopkins is professor of English, Sheffield Hallam University.
Shakespeare’s Fathers and Daughters
By Oliver Ford Davies
Bloomsbury Arden, 224pp, £19.99
Published 29 June 2017