When my classmates and I were beginning to get to grips with the Shakespeare portion of the A-level syllabus, our teacher shared an already well-worn joke. An elderly woman leaves the theatre after watching Hamlet for the first time. Her companion asks: "Well? What did you think?" "I don't know why everyone makes such a fuss about Shakespeare," the old woman complains. "It's full of cliches!"
The joke lies in our knowledge that those apparent cliches are in reality novel gems coined by Shakespeare, the eternal genius, for the purpose of the play. These epigrammatic snippets of wisdom are, we realise, so timeless and so universally true that they have entered our language and become part of our everyday structures of thought.
Shakespeare's bons mots are endlessly recycled in books such as The Timeless Wisdom of Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Guide to Life and Shakespeare's Insults (now divided by profession: there are insults for teachers, for doctors, for the office, and - unlikely as it seems given the frequency with which they are the target of other characters' vitriol - insults for lawyers). As David Bevington reminds us, however, these popular saws and sayings are not necessarily Shakespeare's: they are instead the duplicitous, painfully sententious or sometimes just plain silly ideas of his characters.
For Bevington, Shakespeare is "a remarkable subject because he has revealed so little directly about himself while, at the same time, uttering such extraordinary wisdom that we want to understand him as a thinker". Bevington's publishers, Wiley Blackwell, seem to have been seduced by the desire to uncover the Bard's system of thought, since this volume places Shakespeare in a pantheon of "great minds" including Darwin, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard. Bevington, however, resists the temptation to read the plays as a coherent philosophical statement and instead argues that, throughout his corpus, Shakespeare stages a series of conversations that offer differing perspectives on a series of important subjects, and are seldom fully resolved.
The topics under debate range from political theory, which Bevington explores primarily in relation to the history plays, to the religious controversy and folk belief that underlie texts as diverse as Hamlet, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bevington unpicks Shakespeare's changing attitudes towards sex and gender, explores the playwright's scepticism and his gestures towards classical philosophy, and also considers, in separate chapters, Shakespeare's attitude towards his craft, and the questions of closure and reconciliation that are so central to the late plays.
The book ranges across almost the entire canon, bringing together telling moments from an array of texts, but pausing long enough on particular plays to offer nuanced readings.
The undergraduate or general reader should enjoy this fluent and well-paced tour through the major plays, and will get a good sense, especially in the first half of the book, of important political, religious and dramatic contexts.
The carefully chosen bibliography should stimulate students to explore the ideas summarised here in considerably more detail. It is refreshing to see Calvin included alongside modern critics in the suggested reading on religious controversy: a policy that could fruitfully have been extended further to make Shakespeare a slightly less solitary figure.
Bevington's Shakespeare is almost entirely a man of the theatre: the sonnets are invoked on a few occasions, but Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are mentioned only in passing. Moreover, although Bevington insists that the mind of Shakespeare must remain ultimately unknowable, he does not invite the reader to speculate on the possibility that these plays are the products of more than one mind: of Shakespeare as author, but also of his collaborators, the theatre personnel who acted in and altered the plays, and the print-shop workers who puzzled over manuscript copy, introducing clarifications as well as confusions. This decision, of course, reflects the nature of the book, designed as a broad introduction for undergraduates, and a more challenging account of Shakespeare for the general reader.
Both of these groups, however, may be a little disappointed when they reach Bevington's final "credo": the point at which he declares his willingness to throw caution to the winds and attempt to pin down some portion of Shakespeare's world view.
It is no criticism to observe that Bevington does not reach the poetic heights that have established cries of "neither a borrower nor a lender be", "once more unto the breach dear friends" and "fool's paradise" in the popular imagination. Nonetheless, Bevington is so wary of putting words in his author's mouth, and the positions he states are so carefully qualified, that they are ultimately inconclusive, and Shakespeare risks appearing as a dull moderate, rather than the witty conversationalist whose varied, and often conflicting, positions form the substance of this book.
Shakespeare's Ideas: More Things in Heaven and Earth
By David Bevington
£45.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781405167956 and 7963
Published 1 August 2008