Shakespeare

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1968

Although its title suggests a biography, Stanley Wells’s Shakespeare: A Life in Drama is in reality a critical survey of the dramatist’s literary achievement, encompassing all the dramas and poems. While the first chapter does summarize the essential facts of William Shakespeare’s life and additional biographical details are scattered throughout the text, Wells devotes himself primarily to critical explorations. The book stands in the tradition of similar critical introductions such as E. K. Chambers’ Shakespeare: A Survey (1959) and Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare (1939). A major difference, however, arises from the organization that Wells adopts.

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Like the two books cited and numerous other works of their type, Wells examines the Shakespeare canon chronologically. Yet instead of devoting a chapter to each of the thirty-eight plays, he limits the number of chapters by assigning most dramas to groups. Among the plays, only Othello (pr. 1604) and Macbeth (pr. 1606) receive chapter-length analysis. King Lear (pr. 1605-1606) is logically paired with Timon of Athens (pr. 1607-1608), not only because of their proximity of composition dates but also because of their comparable themes and characters. Similar factors serve to link each of the two English history tetralogies in two separate chapters, with a similar single chapter dealing with five of the ten history plays. As many as five comedies are grouped in a single chapter, largely on the basis of settings and general chronology. Although Wells makes frequent comparisons among the plays that are considered within a single chapter, his analysis normally proceeds from play to play, and so discrete are the sections on single plays that he might well have used subheadings within the chapters.

Among Wells’s previous scholarly achievements are numerous books on Shakespeare and work as general editor of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Oxford University Press). Not surprisingly, his positions on textual and authorial problems reflect his scholarly experience and his long-standing interest in Shakespeare productions. An indication of Wells’s interest in the theater is his long experience as a reviewer of live Shakespeare performances. In textual and other matters, Wells views Shakespeare less as a literary figure than as a man of the theater, a dramatist rather than a poet.

Impressions gleaned from his reviewing represent another factor that sets his critical introductions apart from others. Wells views Shakespeare the writer as one who functioned as part of a team including actors, directors, and revisers and who regarded stage production, not publication, as the final objective of his writing. The life in drama indicated by the subtitle really means not Shakespeare’s life as a creative writer but rather the life of his dramas on stage and their potential for creating meaningful experiences for their audiences. Wells goes so far as to show how some of the dramas can be staged so that they become more relevant to contemporary issues.

To understand the significance of this, one must grasp fundamental differences between Shakespearean productions in England and in other English-speaking nations such as the United States. Worldwide, especially in English-speaking nations, countless live productions of Shakespeare are presented year round. Shakespeare festivals, summer programs, and academic as well as commercial productions are almost too numerous to record. Yet there is a qualitative difference between England and, for example, the United States. In England, it is not unusual to find Shakespeare plays produced in the commercial theater, whereas in the United States, commercial productions are infrequent. Those that do occur are likely to be modernized versions and or highly creative adaptations. At any one time in and around London, it is not uncommon to find several live productions on stage during the same week, and among them are traditional stage interpretations. The cast often features one or more of the most famous names of the English stage, and quality of production is universally high. English actors and actresses learn their skills through acting Shakespeare. After they have achieved fame in modern and more popular roles, they are often more than willing to return to Shakespearean parts. To find screen and television stars such as Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, and Anthony Hopkins appearing on stage in traditional productions of Shakespearean plays is not unusual.

Steeped as he is in the theater, Wells finds the creations of actors and directors relevant to an understanding of the dramas. Drawing on live productions he has seen, and probably reviewed, he comments on the interpretive powers of performers largely of his own time, from Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft to Kenneth Branagh and Imogen Stubbs. In addition, he occasionally refers to film and televised versions. Further emphasizing dramatic criticism, he discusses performances of legendary actors of the past—such as David Garrick, Edmund Booth, and Edmund Kean—basing his commentary on his extensive knowledge of theater history.

For the dramas that ordinarily receive more scholarly attention than interpretive criticism, Wells sometimes makes live productions the major portion of his analysis. For example, his account of Titus Andronicus (pr. 1594), the early revenge tragedy, begins with details about its early stage history, including description of an extant drawing by a Shakespeare contemporary. After identifying the play’s sources and clarifying its sensational plot, Wells explores critical responses to the tragedy and then describes three modern productions in detail, devoting more than a page to effects achieved by a rare uncut stage production at the Swan Theater, Stratford, in 1987.

Even works that saw no stage production—the poems, for example—are assessed within in a dramatic context. Writing of the two long poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), Wells suggests that one reason for their obscurity is that they have not been accorded the advantage of performance and adds that both are more moving when read aloud.

Although he normally includes a settled scholarly evaluation of the issues posed by the plays, Wells sometimes accepts the alternative interpretations that are introduced by directors to adapt Shakespeare to a more modern setting. He is sympathetic toward modernized adaptations that feature the music of Cole Porter and George Gershwin and actors in modern dress, and he welcomes new interpretations on the part of directors. Among these, he cites a production of Measure for Measure (pr. 1604) that exploited an ambiguity in the text to provide a feminist interpretation. In the final act of Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy, the duke attempts to test all the wrongdoers in the plot and to assign a just penalty—one much more remarkable for its mercy than for its justice. In the end, quite unexpectedly, publicly, and almost abruptly, he asks for the hand of the heroine Isabella in marriage. In the remaining few lines, although the duke alludes to the upcoming wedding, Isabella never replies, leaving the director to convey her response solely through the action. John Barton’s interpretation at Stratford in 1970 portrayed an anguished Isabella, who, after everyone else had gone offstage, made it clear to the duke that she would not marry him.

Although the interpretation is warranted by the text, Wells neglects to point out that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have had no doubts about Isabella’s response. Her previous respectful tone toward the duke and Elizabethan assumptions about rank and degree mean that she could not have refused the proposal and indeed would have regarded it as an honor. Wells finds value in a less traditional interpretation of the episode because, it would seem, it better connects with the attitudes and assumptions of modern audiences.

In contrast, when he deals with Julius Caesar (pr. 1599-1600), Wells permits texts and original intent to weigh more heavily. During times of tyranny and dictatorship, the World War II period being a example, directors are inclined to cast Brutus as the hero and treat the assassination of Caesar as a blow for liberty, as if the play were making a serious statement about human rights. Even major Shakespearean critics such as Thomas M. Parrott have named Brutus the protagonist. Mark Van Doren, who acknowledges that Brutus’ nobility muffles his intelligence, also considered Brutus the hero. Yet Wells follows a more conservative and traditional interpretation, convinced that Caesar was the hero Shakespeare intended.

Wells’s inclination to emphasize live production does not generally undermine his sense of traditional critical approaches that one normally finds in scholarly introductions. Typically, his account of the plot provides sufficient information about the play that the reader acquires a genuine sense of the story. As his interest in productions might imply, he accords generous treatment to character analysis, though he is inclined to limit discussion to a few major characters. In Julius Caesar, for example, he explores the characters of Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and Antony in some detail but does not mention Cicero, Calpurnia, or Portia. In his treatment of theme, he clarifies the major conflicts and thematic emphasis of each drama, usually succinctly. Like other books of this type, Wells’s provides a generous sampling of quotations to illustrate character, theme, and poetic qualities of each drama.

In addition, Wells often discusses sources, texts, the dramatic genre of the drama, and the relationship of some plays to others. He is inclined to prefer those texts that are closest to what he regards as acting versions and clearly prefers to interpret the plays as dramatic rather than literary texts. Thus he comes close to accepting the view that the authoritative text is really the one that was acted, often one that was cut to meet the realities of the theater. This represents a bold if not heretical view to traditional literary scholars and editors, but one that seems obvious enough.

The analysis is uneven, as all critical surveys of Shakespeare must be, in part because of the diversity of the Shakespeare canon. At its weakest, Wells’s work appears to incorporate numerous quotations stitched together with bare-bones critical commentary, as one discovers in the treatment of Henry IV, Part II (pr. 1597-1598). On the other hand, Wells gives a much fuller treatment to an often-neglected drama, The Comedy of Errors (pr. 1592-1594). The introduction stands as an important critical essay explaining why he considers the classical comedy Shakespeare’s first dramatic masterpiece.

Although the extensive emphasis on productions sets this book apart from others of its kind, Wells updates scholarship and literary criticism in such a way that readers will at least become more familiar with modern issues and controversies. Questions concerning authorship will illustrate the point. Wells explores the grounds for thinking that Shakespeare wrote a lost drama entitled Loves Labours Won. Although he suggests that the manuscript may yet be discovered, he also hints that the reference to the play might well have been to The Taming of the Shrew (pr. 1593-1594). Another drama, Cardenio, attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is known to have been performed, but no copy of the work has surfaced; Wells treats it as an example of Shakespeare’s inclination toward collaboration as his career approached its end. He follows other scholars in his analysis of The Two Noble Kinsmen (pr. 1612-1613) as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher. He accords brief attention to the question of authorship of the poem “Shall I Die?” attributed to Shakespeare in a seventeenth century manuscript; after exploring the slender evidence of authorship, Wells reaches no final decision.

For readers desiring an introduction to Shakespeare’s achievement, Wells provides a gracefully written combination of dramatic and literary criticism. The book reflects his extensive knowledge of primary and secondary sources and achieves a concise but comprehensive survey of contemporary scholarly and critical issues. The work will also reward those who wish to refresh and update their previous knowledge of the Shakespeare canon.

Sources for Further Study

Houston Chronicle. August 27, 1995, p. Z23.

The Observer. April 17, 1994, p. 19.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 5, 1995, p. 20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, August 6, 1995, p. 13.

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