Monday, April 23, 2007

Shakespeare the Thinker
by A. D. Nuttall
Yale University Press

William Shakespeare would have to count this year's as a pretty good birthday, even with 442 earlier ones to compare. He was simultaneously on the covers of Harper's Magazine, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement a few weeks ago, and today marks the official publication for a new edition of his Complete Works and several other new books, including a new biography by René Weis, a description of the powerful effect of his plays performed by prisoners in Shakespeare Inside, and the work under review here: a lively, penetrating and convivial discussion of his plays that will surely become a classic.

A. D. Nuttall, retired Oxford University professor of English who died before this book was published, writes with the careful and fearless precision that honors the best academic standards, yet in an almost conversational style. He writes about nearly all the plays, and his approach is variously appropriate to that particular play as well as its relationship to the others, to its "type," to Shakespeare's times and what we know about him. In that sense, you might even call this journalistic.

This book has already proven to be an excellent companion when considering a specific play, especially before and after seeing a new production. The contexts and meanings of the histories for someone so remote in time and place is invaluable. Nuttall does not shrink from the issues which certain plays raise for 21st century audiences: the role of women within marriage in The Taming of the Shrew, for example. Other commentators may suggest that Kate's submission is meant ironically, but Nuttall does not take that easy escape.

What makes this book especially valuable is that Nuttall brings not only a lifetime of reading and discussion of the plays, but a lifetime of seeing them performed. Shakespeare the Thinker instantly becomes one of my favorites, along with such titles as Shakespeare: A Life in Drama by Stanley Wells, the discussion of the comedies in Michael Gelven's Truth and the Comedic Art, and William Gibson's unjustifiably neglected masterpiece, Shakespeare's Game.

I'm not a Shakespeare scholar, and I don't agree with all of Nuttall's interpretation, but that's the joy of Shakespeare--the dialogue with the plays can be endless. For reference and for reading, I will be returning to Shakespeare the Thinker.

P.S. I'm posting more on Shakespeare on the occasion of his birthday at Stage Matters.

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