Shakespeare for All Time.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xxii + 442 pp. index. illus. $40. ISBN: 0-19-516093-2.
Stanley Wells is one of the towering figures of current Shakespeare studies: as a much-published scholar and university professor, as general editor of the Oxford series of the individual plays and of the Complete Works, as Vice-Chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and (among his many institutional roles) as Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Thus, there is probably nobody better qualified to offer a general overview of Shakespeare's life and career, and of his multifarious "afterlife" throughout the world. While the scope of the project necessitates superficiality, Wells and the Oxford Press offer the general reader an appealing, lavishly illustrated volume.
The early chapters are the most readable as sustained narratives. Wells is a knowledgeable guide to what is known about Shakespeare's life in Stratford and in London, emphasizing the social and theatrical context in which he worked and the continuing importance of Stratford throughout even his London years. Wells shows, for example, that the costliness of Shakespeare's real estate purchases in Stratford far outweighed any investments he made in London (until the end of his time there, when he bought a residence in Blackfriars that he rented out); and Wells speculates that Shakespeare often retreated to Stratford to write. Who wouldn't prefer a quiet, spacious house to work in to a cramped room in the city? If Wells is right, the portrait of Shakespeare as a man who abandoned his wife and children until he returned to them in the last few years of his life has to be reimagined.
Wells considers the third and longest chapter, "Shakespeare the Writer," to be the "core" of the book (xx). It is especially valuable for its down-to-earth, practical and theatrical emphasis: the development of the texts we have from scripts for actors, the use and transformation of sources, the importance of the spoken (and sometimes unspoken) language of the stage, the relationship of actors to audience. Many of the important points are accompanied by graphic illustrations: Shakespeare's methods of revision are shown in the analysis of repeated passages in both the Quarto and Folio versions of Love's Labor's Lost (110-13), and by a photograph and transcription--with many cross-outs and insertions as well as irregular spellings--of the page from Sir Thomas More which is most probably in Shakespeare's hand. A picture of the first edition of Much Ado, probably printed from his working papers (114-15) and using the actors' names in several places rather than their fictitious ones, shows him more closely involved in his immediate theatrical milieu than the later Folio text does.
The rest of the book--a little more than half--deals with Shakespeare's influence in succeeding times, starting with seventeenth-century admirers and adapters such as Davenant and Dryden, and the beginnings of Shakespearean scholarship and criticism. Progressively the amount of material that needs to be covered--or more accurately, touched on--becomes overwhelming and necessarily selective. The principal focus in the chapters on the eighteenth through twentieth centuries is on the acting styles and notable performances of such major actors and actresses as David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, the Booths, Henry Irving and his leading lady Ellen Terry, and Laurence Olivier. But there is also much else, including material on important editions of the plays and the principles their editors followed, on the transpositions of the plays into other art forms or media (such as opera and film), on translations into other languages, on Shakespeare commemorations and festivals at Stratford and elsewhere, even on forgeries and spoofs.
Since none of this material can be developed at any length and since it is presented chronologically rather than topically, readers seeking information on the wide array of subjects broached in this book may be inclined to turn to other reference works. There is no bibliography and the notes are not extensive. But this is nonetheless a volume that is a pleasure to own. It is an exceptionally handsome one, with its 141 illustrations (not including the color plates) closely keyed to Wells's text. And its chronological and geographical scope certainly demonstrate that Shakespeare is "for all time."
BRIDGET GELLERT LYONS
Rutgers University, Emerita
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|Author:||Lyons, Bridget Gellert|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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