Shakespeare & Me.

Books During my recent visit to Portobello Road, I stopped in at The Notting Hill Bookshop, the bookshop which appeared in the film Notting Hill. About a quarter of a mile away there's also a cheap gift shop which has the film's logo atop the entrance as well as the phrase "the travel bookshop" which is presumably meant to suggest to tourists that it's there. But The Notting Hill Bookshop has the blue plaque of legitimacy. Either way it was a pleasant surprise to be standing inside the same location as Julia and Hugh from back in the days when Richard Curtis let other people direct is writing.  Just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to where the Shakespeare section is.

The only book in stock which I hadn't read was Shakespeare & Me, a collection of essay by actors, directors, novelists and academics about what the canon mean to them.  There's Camille Paglia on teaching Shakespeare to her students, Ralph Fiennes on what attracts him to Coriolanus or Julie Taymor on directing her film adaptation of The Tempest.  Most of the material is original, some of it reprinted but the overall effect is similar to some of this blog's annual reviews.  Providing a group of people with a slightly nebulous open topic and telling them to run with it and see where it takes them.  Some offer a couple of pages, others more than twenty.

Inevitably the results are a bit of a mixed bag.  Certainly the best piece are when the writers have stuck to the brief and write about how Shakespeare has effected them directly, the process of thinking through a performance either in a role or directing with behind the scenes anecdotes, underscoring that these are plays to be watched more than read.  F Murray Abraham's meditation on Shylock is perfectly structured around the challenges of staging the play in numerous venues and how his interpretation changed depending on the communication possibilities of the space.  Jess Winfield of the Reduced Shakespeare company compares the revision process of his show with Will's own.

Unfortunately, there's also a tendency to shift into a much more generic academic approach, with articles indivisible to what might be found in a traditional literary criticism publication of the kind which is only truly interesting if the reader is actually studying a given play and not simply seeking passing inspiration.  Oddly, a few of these are provided by actors, who begin with some explanation as to why they're covering the topic, usually that they played the role in some old production, before heading off into something which seems to be allowing them to write the essay which might have eluded them during their university career.

Not that there aren't some exceptions.  James Earl Jones's The Sun God which investigates tragedy in general and particularly Lear and Othello offers an approach I'd not previously encountered, that if you blame others for their failures as is the tendency in those plays, you're diminishing their own role in the chaos.  Iago is racist and persuasive, true, but its Othello's own failings as a human being which lead to his destruction.  Rory Kinear considers the flexibility which Shakespeare's texts provide and how much of what we see is based on the rehearsal process and the audience's interpretation than what appears in the actual text.

A few outrages.  Germaine Greer's otherwise quite logical argument that Shakespeare must have visited Stratford regularly during the quarter of a century he was otherwise in London then continues by suggesting this as a reason why he can't have collaborated with any other writers, singling Pericles out as a solo work even though anyone whose read or seen the play can tell full well that he clearly  takes over after act two as the intellectual quality of verse increases ten fold.  There's a reason why there's been less writing on Shakespeare potentially being the sole author of the plays -- it's because the evidence stacks up against it.  He can only be the sole author if he's deliberately pastiching the style of another writer in places.

In her introduction, editor Susannah Carson says she hopes the essays will act as a conversation, which she facilitates by grouping them around loose topics, either plays or themes or modes of production.  There's some repetition, with R&J's balcony scenes being investigated from numerous angles.  Reading the book cover to cover was probably a mistake.  This is the sort of thing to be dipped into, perhaps around watching the plays.  Almost all of the writers acknowledge that it wasn't until they saw the text into production that they really became fans of the plays and perhaps that's the best message the book can offer.

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