Considering Shakespeare’s profound influence on world culture, we know relatively little about the man himself. He left no memoir, no essays. And he toiled in a twilight-zone world, giving court performances and working hard to earn artistic respect yet never escaping the censorious society in which “players” were looked down upon and public theaters had to be built outside the city limits amid fisheries and whorehouses.
Shakespeare on Theatre, the first in a new “On Theatre” series from Opus Book Publishers, promises inspiration for stage folk undertaking productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but it also delivers a valuable perspective for scholars. Nick de Somogyi, whose designation as a mere “Editor” seems a bit too humble, has collected and annotated a large flock of passages bearing on the subject of theatre itself from works by Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries.
Each chapter quotes relevant passages reflecting Shakespeare’s observations and attitudes about a particular aspect of his vocation: prologues, rehearsals, props and costumes, audiences and critics, and so on. If you thought Shakespeare’s reflections on theater were contained in a few famous lines like “All the world’s a stage” and “The play’s the thing” and “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more,” this book will disabuse you of that notion in a refreshing, painless manner. De Somogyi shows that Shakespeare’s absorption in theater extends deeply into many scenes in many plays (and into the sonnets too). Cumulatively, his selections and well-considered glosses combine to paint a more vivid picture of Shakespeare’s cultural and professional milieu than I have ever seen before in a short, easily digestible text.
A good exemplar of de Somogyi’s approach is in a section headed “The power of the imagination.” Here is his introduction to the famous scene in King Lear in which Edgar leads blind Gloucester to believe he is climbing a steep hill and then standing on the edge of a precipice.
Despite the full resources of the Globe playhouse in its pomp – the brilliant costumes, the finesse of its music, the tour-de-force acting from ‘the best actors in the world’ and their fluently choreographed hired men, the range of its stage-effects and naturalistic props, the intoxicating transport of its audiences’ imaginations all over the known world, in time and in space, from Venice and Verona to Elsinore and Ancient Rome – despite all such assets, Shakespeare’s most determined vision of his theatrical craft reduces to a single scene. Gloucester is blind. The man he does not know to be his son Edgar is dressed in the humblest of clothes. The sea really is far away. The surface of the stage he believes himself climbing really is level. Modern drama is born.
Packed with acute observations and deep knowledge, the book is nevertheless a light-hearted and clever read that offers rewards for anyone who has studied or staged Shakespeare. One of those rewards is a further understanding of the bard himself, who left so little direct evidence of his character and personality but so much of it to uncover in his work with the kind of expert, genial guidance this book provides.