Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Sunday 18 September 2011 23:02

In the 240 years since Johnson and Garrick set the Shakespeare machinery running in earnest, industrial revolutions have come and gone, but the Bardic mills grind on. Some 4,000 books and articles appear each year; this autumn, Germaine Greer's rehabilitation of Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare's Wife) is imminent, with Charles Nicholl's investigative quest (The Lodger) due in November.

The business also does a brisk trade in miniatures. This season's best-selling short volume will be Bill Bryson's Shakespeare (HarperPress, £14.99), his contribution to the publisher's pithy Eminent Lives series. With a few flashes of his trademark drollery (proponents of the demented theory that other people wrote Shakespeare's work include J Thomas Looney, Sherwood Silliman and George M Battey), our favourite Anglophile American plays with a very straight bat indeed. This crisp synopsis of biographical knowledge never strays an inch from the narrow path of pukka scholarship.

Compared, for instance, to Michael Wood's TV series, Bryson downplays the evidence for Shakespeare as a closet Catholic. When it comes to old traditions such as deer-poaching at Charlecote, "we don't know... whether he even poached so much as an egg". As for the homoerotic voice of the Sonnets, "we know nothing at all about the relationship" between the poet and the high-camp Earl of Southampton, their presumed addressee.

Bryson knocks down the mythic skittles one by one. Where he excels, as you might expect from a former sub-editor with a lifelong fascination for language and the physical forms that convey it, is in explaining Shakespeare as a package of textual traces. He draws us into the nitty-gritty of parish records and printing-house methods, on sleuthing expeditions to such inner sanctums as the National Archives and Folger Shakespeare Library.

Vital but elusive arguments about how we know what we know – why ex-mayor John Shakespeare fell from grace in 1570s Stratford-upon-Avon, or how the Jaggard print shop put together the 1623 First Folio – have seldom come across more succinctly in a book for a non-specialist readership.

Since Bryson avoids all but general comments on the work, newcomers could do with a matching volume that plunges deep into the rhythms and passions of the plays. In Where There's a Will There's a Way (Nicholas Brealey, £9.99), Laurie Maguire - who teaches at Oxford - transforms the Complete Works into a breezy self-help manual. In spite of moments of bathos that suggest a tongue firmly planted in her cheek (Hamlet's grief captures all our losses, such as "the crashing of one's computer hard drive"), this is a quirky little gem. You share Maguire's fizzy delight in writing for once as a human being rather than a certificated scholar as she seeks lessons about life and (especially) love: "Troilus is a narcissist; Angelo is a hypocrite; Bertram is immature. I've dated them all."

As those examples hint, Maguire finds plenty of fruitful answers to dilemmas about identity and family, commitment and risk, grief and maturity, in the ambivalent middle-period "problem plays". Her take on the tragedies (beyond the semi-comic Antony and Cleopatra) feels more uncertain, and you could imagine a second volume that majored in the moral conundrums of public life. All in good time - one of the chief Shakespearean messages, as she notes. For now, this warm and smart jeu d'esprit neatly complements Bryson's rubbish-clearing toil. Curiously, the dry scepticism of the "amateur" Bryson will please experts more than the frisky subjectivity of the "professional" Maguire. But then the pleasures, and pitfalls, of role-reversal is one theme of which Shakespeare never tires.

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