This is Shakespeare, by Emma Smith

Lisa Hopkins applauds a ‘woke’ look at the gaps in Shakespeare’s plays

May 30, 2019
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This is a book designed not for academics but rather for the general reader, especially one who might be going to see a Shakespeare play in the theatre and would like some sense of what to focus on. It wears its learning very lightly, although there are clear signs of that learning in every chapter, and it only rarely refers to the wider critical conversation (the chapter on King Lear being the most notable exception to this). It also commits what might once have been considered the heresy of borrowing ideas from different critical approaches in different chapters, but I suspect we are all much more relaxed about that these days, and it would be a very pernickety reader who wanted to make a fuss about it.

Above all, the book offers plenty of reassurances that it is OK to find Shakespeare difficult, working particularly hard to quash any suggestion that you need to have a sophisticated understanding of blank verse, although I was a little surprised that there is less interest in attempting to demystify Shakespeare’s language. Emma Smith herself uses a breezily colloquial style (though I suspect not quite as colloquial as it might have been if the book had not received the attentions of a copy-editor: the expression “dead-catted”, for instance, is followed by an explanation in brackets that rather kills the effect).

There are 20 short chapters, each focusing on a single play, though the chapter on Henry IV, Part One does also sneak in glances at Part Two and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the one on Measure for Measure concludes with a gesture at All’s Well That Ends Well. There is nothing to argue with in the choices; Henry V may seem an odd omission given that Smith has edited a volume on it, and I would have thought that space might also have been found for Titus Andronicus, because it is performed quite often and could certainly do with some introduction, but it is the author’s privilege to choose which plays to cover, and I would not have wanted to lose any of the current chapters. There is also nothing to take issue with in the comments on the individual plays, which are sane, sensible and all suitably woke. The book’s basic thesis is that Shakespeare is a “gappy” writer who provokes questions rather than provides answers, with the implicit promise that any audience member can have a stab at engaging with those questions without needing to worry about getting it shamingly wrong.

The book seems faintly apologetic about its own insights, which tend to be smuggled in rather than announced, but they are certainly there, particularly in the shape of an original and provocative analysis of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, a sharp and incisive discussion of genre in Measure for Measure and a nicely worked analysis of The Comedy of Errors, which proposes that the prominence of plot material implies that humans do not control their own destinies. I suspect some readers may feel that Smith is at times trying too hard to talk street-speak, but personally I would forgive the book anything for the really excellent joke about the room in the Elephant.

Lisa Hopkins is professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University.

This is Shakespeare
By Emma Smith
Pelican, 368pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780241392157
Published 2 May 2019

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