Book of the Week: This is Shakespeare

29 Apr|Emma Smith

The Flower Portrait of William Shakespeare, 1815

Dr Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare at Oxford University, explains we should be revealing, not resolving, the inconsistencies and ambiguities in the Bard’s plays.

Why should you read a book about Shakespeare?

Because he is a literary genius and prophet whose works speak to – more, they encapsulate – the human condition. Because he presents timeless values of tolerance and humanity. Because his writing is technically brilliant and endlessly verbally inventive. Because he put it all so much better than anyone else.


That’s not why; not at all. Sure, that’s what we always say about Shakespeare, but it doesn’t really get to the truth about the value of these works for the twenty-first century. The Shakespeare in this book is more questioning and ambiguous, more specific to the historical circumstances of his own time, more unexpectedly relevant to ours. Lots of what we trot out about Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and the divine right of kings and ‘Merrie England’ and his enormous vocabulary blah blah blah is just not true, and just not important. They are the critical equivalent of ‘dead-catting’ in a meeting or negotiation (placing a dead cat on the table to divert attention from more tricky or substantive issues). They deflect us from investigating the artistic and ideological implications of Shakespeare’s silences, inconsistencies and, above all, the sheer and permissive gappiness of his drama.

That gappy quality is so crucial to my approach that I want to outline it here. Shakespeare’s plays are incomplete, woven of what’s said and what’s unsaid, with holes in between. This is true at the most mundane level: what do Hamlet, or Viola, or Brutus look like? A novelist would probably tell us; Shakespeare the dramatist does not. That means that the clues to personality that we might expect from a novel, or from a film, are not there. If The Taming of the Shrew’s Katherine looks vulnerable, or ballsy, or beautiful, that makes a difference to our interpretation of this most ambiguous of plays, and if her imposed husband Petruchio is attractive, or boorish, or nervous, that too has an impact. Fantasy casting – where you imagine a particular modern actor in a role – is a very interesting game to play with Shakespeare’s plays: if you cast action-guy Mel Gibson as Hamlet (as Franco Zeffirelli did in 1990), you immediately produce a particular take on the play, which is quite different from casting Michelle Terry (at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2018), or Benedict Cumberbatch (directed by Lyndsey Turner, 2015). That we don’t know what characters look like is one symptom of the absence of larger narration and commentary in a play. No authorial or narrative voice tells us more than the speeches of the characters themselves. Stage directions are relatively sparse and almost never tell us how a given action was performed: does Richard II give over his crown, orb and sceptre in Act 4 of his play to Bolingbroke sadly, gleefully, manically, or in fact not at all? The play’s choreography is not spelled out for us, leaving this scene typically open to directorial and readerly imaginations.

Shakespeare’s construction of his plays tends to imply rather than state; he often shows, rather than tells; most characters and encounters are susceptible to multiple interpretations. It’s because we have to fill in the gaps that Shakespeare is so vital.

And there are larger conceptual and ethical gaps too: the intellectual climate of the late sixteenth century made some things newly thinkable (that religion is ‘but a childish toy’, as Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe had one of his characters claim), and overlaid old certainties with new doubts. Shakespeare lived and wrote in a world that was on the move, and in which new technologies transformed perceptions of that world. The microscope, for example, made a new tiny world visible, as Robert Hooke uncovered in his book Micrographia (1665), illustrated with hugely detailed pictures including fleas as big as cats. The telescope, in the work of Galileo and other astronomers, brought the ineffably distant into the span of human comprehension, and theatre tried to process the cultural implications of these changes. Sometimes, Shakespeare’s plays register the gap between older visions of a world run by divine fiat, and more contemporary ideas about the centrality of human agency to causality, or they propose adjacent worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible. These gaps are conceptual or ethical, and they open up space to think differently about the world and experience it from another point of view.

Gappiness is Shakespeare’s dominant and defining characteristic. And ambiguity is the oxygen of these works, making them alive in unpredictable and changing ways. It’s we, and our varied engagement, that makes Shakespeare: it’s not for nothing that the first collected edition of his plays in the seventeenth century addressed itself ‘to the great variety of readers’.

His works hold our attention because they are fundamentally incomplete and unstable: they need us, in all our idiosyncratic diversity and with the perspective of our post-Shakespearean world, to make sense. ‘Shakespeare’ is here less an inert noun than an active verb: ‘to Shakespeare’ might be defined as the activity of posing questions, unsettling certainties, challenging orthodoxies, opening out endings. 

Extract from This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith (Pelican, £20). Buy a copy here. Emma Smith will also be discussing Shakespeare at the Idler Festival in July.