(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1968 words.)