Does the world need another book about Shakespeare? Particularly considering how little we really know about the playwright, not to mention the continuing authorship debate. But as far as this one’s concerned, the answer turns out to be yes. Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith, who both teach English at Oxford University, have produced a book that tackles many of our ingrained notions about Shakespeare head-on—such idées reçues, Smith suggests, as “the comedies are less interesting than the tragedies,” or “Shakespeare wrote silly things for the groundlings and philosophical things for upper-class people.” In this sense, while the book’s “myths” certainly embrace the meaning of “ideas that have evolved over time as people have attempted to find explanations for something,” that doesn’t necessarily imply one of the other common meanings of “myth”—that the idea or story is also untrue (although it might be). “That seemed like a good starting point,” says Smith. “We wanted to go back and ask, are these things actually true?” And the answer to that question, apparently, is yes—and no.
We don’t know enough, and we never will
One of the reasons Shakespeare looms so large is in fact all that speculation. One of the messages of the book — the myths — is that we simply don’t know enough; there’s not enough evidence for us to interpret. Shakespeare is more unknowable than some of his contemporaries, and yet this uncertainty is also central to the way his works have endured. “In a philosophical sense,” says Smith, “the idea that Shakespeare’s works can’t so easily be pinned down to particular events or historical moments has enabled the plays to be reinterpreted widely across time and place.” This notion is discussed in the book in myth 22 (“The Plays Are Timeless”), which argues that the plays are about common human emotion—in the sense that, for instance, Hamlet is not only a prince, but also a young student grappling with the loss of his father. “That’s what the plays deal with,” says Smith. “How they might work can be reinvented because of that emotional quality,” or what academics call “interiority.”
In the almost 400 years that have gone by since Shakespeare’s death in 1616, it seems that at different times we’ve filled in the gaps of what we don’t know about him with different things, often in our desire to make Shakespeare the kind of figure we want him to be. “We’ve thought of him sometimes as a conservative figure and at others as a radical figure,” says Smith. “The idea that Shakespeare wrote his history plays for the Tudor authorities was very current in the earlier part of the 20th century; it was part of a particular way of interpreting the evidence because we wanted Shakespeare to be a kind of mouthpiece for that authority—a kind of poet laureate–like figure who spoke for the establishment or the established order. In more recent criticism, the great artist doesn’t look like that to us now. We’ve looked at the oppositional artists of the 1960s; we’ve seen visual artists and their unconventional minds—so we’ve remodeled what great artists look like. They’re unconventional or unorthodox in their private life and at odds with the general social norms of their period. So we made changes to that way of thinking, and one of the ways we’ve done it, for instance, is wondering if Shakespeare might have been Catholic.” This particular preoccupation is less about religion per se and more about an interest in such issues as political opposition and freedom of conscience. “It’s become important for us now partly because of what we think artistic genius looks like,” says Smith. “This notion that the artist/genius should be more oppositional, not in the service of the authorities.”
Speeches vs. speakers
In their discussion of two of the myths—24 (“Shakespeare Did Not Revise His Plays” and 29 (“Shakespeare’s Characters are Like Real People”)—the authors dismantle both these ideas, showing how Shakespeare sometimes wrote a speech first and applied it to a character second. “One of the narratives about how Shakespeare develops as a writer,” says Smith, “comes from the idea that he started to invest more in individualized language for particular characters around the middle of his career and from then on—but in the earlier plays, such as Romeo and Juliet (1597), if you didn’t know who was speaking you couldn’t work it out from the way they spoke, because everyone speaks in the same way.” Conversely, the argument goes, if you don’t know who’s speaking in the later plays, it’s easier to work out because the different characters speak differently, although “I don’t know that this is always true,“ says Smith.
“I don’t have a startling theory in my Macbeth book,” Smith continues, “but what I’ve tried to do there is to make people who are reading it feel confident that they can read it. In one chapter I go through one of Macbeth’s speeches, talking about how it works and how we might appreciate it. Then I quote the Spark notes No Fear Shakespeare, which has a paraphrase of the speech. I try to point out that actually readers don’t need this, because it paraphrases the things that are least interesting about the speech. What I’m saying is, trust Shakespeare. Nobody ever understood every word of Shakespeare. Nobody ever talked like that (a subject discussed in myth 11). They never did. What he wrote was always poetry, or even a kind of music.”
Connected to this is one of the reasons that studying Shakespeare as poetry is so rewarding; the fact that characters often echo metaphors or themes that have previously been set up by other characters, even though realistically there’s no possibility that they could have known what was said, as they weren’t physically present in those scenes. A good example of this is from Macbeth (Smith’s new book, Macbeth: Language & Writing, will be published this summer), a play in which clothing is always taken to be one of the great metaphors running through it. “It seems to be something in the water system of the play,” says Smith. “Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” Macbeth asks Ross when the latter tells him that Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor, right at the beginning of the play. “Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief,” Banquo later says of Macbeth, suggesting that he isn’t adequate to the role of king, as if his clothes don’t fit him properly. Yet while all these characters the play use these clothing images, as Smith points out, “that doesn’t really tell us anything about them as characters or individual people, although it adds to the poetry and the language of the play as a whole.”
It would be pretty much unthinkable for a playwright to do this nowadays, but, as Smith says, “it’s become one of the things we value about Shakespeare. Certainly at school we write essays about the united imagery across a play, the way things keep recurring. We’ve come to value it as a literary device, but if we had a play now where everybody sounded the same we wouldn’t be happy with it at all.”
Getting the tone right
Maguire and Smith both set out to write a book for a general readership, not just students of Shakespeare, although Smith acknowledges that it’s “more meaningful if readers already have some ideas about Shakespeare collected from the theatre or school study.” The book wears its scholarship lightly, and the tone is relaxed: in the chapter on myth 11 (“Shakespeare Wrote in the Rhythms of Everyday Speech”), they give as a modern example of iambic pentameter scansion an order at Starbucks: “A skinny cappuccino, please, to go”; while in myth 14 (“Shakespeare Was a Stratford Playwright”), they cite the “product placement” in Twelfth Night, when Antonio recommends a lodge.
Each chapter, or myth, is relatively short, about 2,000 words. “That’s the average length of a weekly Oxford essay,” says Smith, “and it was good discipline for us.” There are numerous references throughout the book to aspects of various contemporary productions for “proof of principle,” yet for all their accessibility the authors nimbly avoid dumbed-down “myth-busting.” Smith was particularly anxious about the tone. Early in the process a complete draft was sent out by the publishers to be read —“it’s a sort of customary, anonymous peer review”—and the report that came back said the tone was patronizing. Rather than go back to the drawing board, Smith and Maguire sat on the book for three months and then sent out a couple of chapters to a few non-academic readers, without a professional take on Shakespeare, who they felt were the target audience, asking if they felt the book talked down to them. “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” says Smith, “so we were able to tell the publisher we wanted to keep it pretty much exactly as it was, and we did.”
A never-ending story
In their coda to 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare, Maguire and Smith write about how academics should to spend time in the theatre as well as the library. Many productions have given them new insights into Shakespeare in both big and small ways. “Sometimes going to the theatre is a really good way to look at a play you’ve never really got on well with,” says Smith. “For instance, Marianne Elliott’s 2009 production of All’s Well That Ends Well did that for me. It’s a play that nobody gets on well with; nobody has a sense of how it works, and I’d never seen a good production of it. But this production brought out the fairytale in the story in a proper Grimm’s fairytale sense—not nicey-nicey, but unreal in certain practical ways, and very real in emotional ways. It dispensed with reality in terms of plot and setting, so they were irrelevant, and it gave a different kind of sense of what reality might be, in a more archetypal way. It seemed to be a look or an aesthetic that made sense of that play in a way that I’ve actually never made sense of it before.”
As we were finishing, I asked Smith if all Shakespeare scholars deep down really have a desire to unearth his manuscripts, or a longing to get at the truth of who Shakespeare really was. “For most of us it would be terrible, because then it would all be over,” she said. “I think we would also all be very disappointed. Shakespeare as a person, or Shakespeare’s own sense of what he was doing, might seem very reductive to us.”
You can listen to a podcast of Emma Smith’s lectures on Shakespeare here.