Youth is wasted on the younger and so, in my case, was undergraduate schooling. I can depend on the fingers of 1 hand the variety of lectures I attended throughout my three years, too busy with the extra critical enterprise of propping up bars and pursuing romantic issues. A type of whose lectures I studiously averted 20 years in the past was a comparatively new worker of the college, Emma Smith, who will need to have been only some years older than me. She has since develop into one among our main Shakespeare students, publishing an excellent, exhaustive historical past of the First Folio in 2016.
Like many, I regretted not making use of myself extra diligently to my research, and so it felt like a second likelihood when, 10 years in the past, Smith started to launch podcasts of her undergraduate lectures on-line. These lectures have since develop into a staple of my cultural life, important preparation for encounters with the Bard in theatre and movie, pressed eagerly on mates actual and digital, shamelessly cribbed from at any time when I overview a Shakespeare play on the radio. There was a beautiful second on the practice as much as London late final 12 months when, taking my 10-year-old son to his first Shakespeare – Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth on the Barbican – we shared an ear every of an Emma Smith podcast, and I felt as I at all times really feel after I introduce somebody to her work: as if I’m passing on a present, one which concurrently enchants and demystifies the work of our best literary genius.
Now Smith has turned 20 of her Approaching Shakespeare podcasts right into a e-book, increasing upon and weaving collectively her authentic lectures to create This Is Shakespeare, already burnished with glowing reward from Hilary Mantel and James Shapiro. In her epilogue, Smith imagines different books she might need written which are “current within the archaeology of this one”. She summons the attractive picture of the ghost buildings and settlements revealed by the “lengthy, dry summer time” of 2018 to hint these works buried inside her personal e-book. She would possibly, she tells us, have composed a literary biography of Shakespeare (like we’d like one other a type of), or a theatrical examine of his work in efficiency, or a historic treatise exploring concepts of “Elizabethan succession politics, faith, social organisation and metropolis life”. What she is doing by conjuring up these unwritten books is subtly reminding you that her e-book is all of those and extra. That is the facility of her central thesis: we discover Shakespeare not in speculative biopics or the reductive quibbling of educational exegesis, however relatively within the work itself. This, she is saying, is Shakespeare; he’s his performs. “There’s nothing extra to say concerning the information of Shakespeare’s personal life, and vitality is a property of the works, not their long-dead creator.”
Smith’s written voice, like that of her lectures, is disarmingly frank, refreshingly irreverent, full of popular culture, from Homer Simpson to Mates to screwball comedy. “Confession: I don’t actually care what he might need meant, and nor do you have to,” she says at one level. Smith claims she desires the e-book to attraction to everybody: “Readers, theatregoers, college students and all those that really feel that they missed out on Shakespeare at some earlier level and are keen to have one other pop at these extraordinary works.” To realize this, she units about slaughtering an entire herd of sacred cows, holding up for examination most of the pieties about Shakespeare that we’re taught to watch in school.
The central concept behind This Is Shakespeare is that it’s the “sheer and permissive gappiness of his drama” – what Smith calls the “radical uncertainties” in Shakespeare’s performs – that makes it so common, so constantly related to its instances. It’s the gaps he leaves for readers, actors, administrators and audiences to inhabit that offers these “partial, shifting, unstable survivals from a really completely different world… the extraordinary capacity to ventriloquise and stimulate our present issues”. The gaps are additionally why it’s a mistake to hunt definitive solutions from a Shakespeare play. “I don’t assume Shakespeare writes his performs to convey messages,” Smith says. “He asks questions relatively than solutions them.”
Taking a cue from this, Smith buildings the e-book as a collection of questions requested in flip to every of the 20 performs. She asks, what occurs if Katherine and Petruchio don’t kiss on the finish of The Taming of the Shrew? What if Isabella refuses to marry the Duke on the finish of Measure for Measure? What if we don’t purchase into the twee Victorian imaginative and prescient of A Midsummer Night time’s Dream and see it, as an alternative, because the “a lot darker, sexier” play that it’s? How have world occasions altered the standing of King Lear in our cultural consciousness? Why does Coriolanus neglect the identify of the “poor man” who sheltered him through the Volscian warfare? What does the up to date perception that The Tempest comes late in Shakespeare’s canon do to our understanding of the play?
These questions are brilliantly illuminating and serve each as introductions to the performs for these in want of a refresher and prompts for deeper thought for these extra accustomed to the work. There’s an enormous quantity of different criticism right here, each historic and up to date, however This Is Shakespeare is excess of merely synoptic. Smith’s personal shut studying of Shakespeare’s performs is dazzling, her authentic analysis – on doubling, on the crossing of generic boundaries, on male friendship – completely convincing. What This Is Shakespeare provides the reader most of all, although, is a licence to benefit from the performs with out the cultural and historic baggage they so usually carry. Smith is, above all else, nice enjoyable, and it’s not possible to not get carried alongside on the tide of her enthusiasm. This Is Shakespeare is the most effective introduction to the performs I’ve learn, maybe the most effective e-book on Shakespeare, full cease.
With the monstrosity of that sham-intellectual buffoon Boris Johnson’s e-book on the Bard lurking simply over the horizon (though apparently nonetheless unwritten), that is like an anticipatory reprimand, a mannequin of unpretentious, deeply researched, profoundly approachable criticism. It’s a e-book to offer to anybody who loves Shakespeare, however significantly to those that assume they don’t.
• This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith is printed by Pelican (£20). To order a replica go to guardianbookshop.com or name 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, on-line orders solely. Cellphone orders min p&p of £1.99