Emma Smith and Andrew McConnell Stott both introduce their books by acknowledging that not everyone enjoys Shakespeare. Smith announces at the start of This Is Shakespeare that she has written the book for anyone who’s ever experienced ‘the terrible and particular weariness’ of watching a tedious performance, while Stott’s What Blest Genius? begins with an anecdote about King George III confessing to the novelist Fanny Burney that he found most Shakespeare plays ‘agonising stuff’, and kept a list of hated characters. But why did George, who, as Stott notes, had ‘dominions spanning five continents’, feel able to confess this only in secret to a sympathetic novelist? Because, George complained, ‘it’s Shakespeare, and nobody dare abuse him … one should be stoned for saying so!’
This wariness, it must be noted, is not altogether shared by 21st-century scholars. Plenty of the best and liveliest writing on the Renaissance concentrates on what came before or after Shakespeare, or what lay behind his writings. Some scholars attribute Shakespeare’s pre-eminence to four centuries of propaganda and not to the fact that Hamlet is better than Hengist, King of Kent.
Smith’s outstanding book offers us ‘a Shakespeare you could have a drink and a good conversation with’. Stott’s What Blest Genius?, meanwhile, delightfully proves that the whirligigs of Shakespearean tourism and tat owe their origins to David Garrick, the 18th-century star actor who orchestrated the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, which proved long on Bardolatry and short on the so-called Bard.
The Shakespeare Jubilee, held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, consisted of three days of rain-soaked revelry in Stratford-upon-Avon, centring on a wooden rotunda. The climax was a recitation by Garrick of an idolatrous ode of his own creation. Harried by fading fame and pain from his single cystic kidney, Garrick was determined to secure immortality for Shakespeare and himself at once. Aside from Garrick, the star of What Blest Genius? is James Boswell, later Samuel Johnson’s biographer but at the time of the Jubilee a festival-going hack on the make. Stott is at his most picaresque when recounting Boswell’s energetic hustling in the preceding years, which included penning anonymous paragraphs in praise of himself for the London press and oscillating between delightful and desperate sexual adventures. Stott covers these in detail, taking in arboreal exploits and the testicular consequences of venereal disease along the way. At the time of the Jubilee, Boswell was engaged to be married and thus abstemious; nevertheless, What Blest Genius? will surely remain the contribution to Shakespeare studies that most frequently employs the word ‘rogered’. Stott revivifies the entire dramatis personae of the waterlogged Jubilee: Drury Lane’s finest, sex lives in obvious disarray, slogging up to Warwickshire, where they performed relentlessly rhyming poetry and attended a lot of balls.
Shakespeare sometimes feels conspicuous by his absence from the pages of Stott’s book. The fact that it never seems to have occurred to Garrick to stage a scene from, let alone a full production of, a Shakespeare play is the most jaw-dropping revelation here. It’s unclear whether anybody in Stratford objected to this as much as to the onslaught of fireworks, sedan chairs and tacky souvenirs. In the absence of any real theatre to describe, Stott foregrounds the Stratfordians: impoverished locals whom Garrick despised but whose labour was essential for everything from erecting the rotunda to pulling floats. As a native Stratfordian, I’m delighted that my precursors rallied from their superstitions – seeing Garrick as the Devil, theatre as sorcery and the appearance of a comet as a warning that ‘Papists and Popery’ were too much at large in the realm – to fleece the literary yuppies for all they had. Beds in cottages cost a guinea per night; aristocrats were crammed into ‘wretched’ almshouses (today rather desirable) and the one-legged theatrical impresario Samuel Foote paid two shillings simply to learn the time. As Stott gleefully notes, the timekeeper obliged him only with the hour; minutes, he explained, would be extra.
Smith would have been a sympathetic ear for George III and all Garrick’s doubtful, rain-sodden tourists. Her rejection of the Shakespeare cult is clear from her excoriation in the prologue of the ‘blah blah blah’ of Shakespeare’s mythical perfection. Instead, she argues, it is Shakespeare’s ‘gappiness’ that is his ‘dominant and defining characteristic’. Her Shakespeare is not the stuff of heroic odes, but rather a playwright dedicated to ‘posing questions, unsettling certainties, challenging orthodoxies’. This Is Shakespeare covers twenty plays in twenty chapters, revising Smith’s chart-topping iTunes podcasts on the playwright into a collection outstanding for its distillation of intricate conceptual and textual cruces into readable prose. The tone is emphatic and likely to provoke well beyond its intended audience of grown-ups who don’t want a textbook. Lady Macbeth aside, Smith’s Shakespeare concocted only one-dimensional tragic heroines until he created Cleopatra in 1606–7. Ophelia’s certainly a drip, but what of Juliet? As Smith sees it, Shakespearean biography is over – she kills it off in a parenthetical injunction that ‘there’s nothing more to say about the facts of Shakespeare’s own life’. The mastery of Smith’s writing is familiar from her other work. Here she exults in Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance: her Shakespeare ‘knows about intersectionality as much as about Ovid’. She revisits plays from unexpected angles, so that they will seem new to both the experienced theatregoer and the baffled student. The chapter on Julius Caesar, bringing together the 1599 Bishops’ Ban and Baudrillard, is as memorable for its lucidity as Smith’s account of The Taming of the Shrew. This early play exemplifies her contention that ‘Shakespeare’s works prompt questions rather than answering them’: the fact that the play’s ending seems troubling and ambiguous is a result of its form, she claims, rather than the anxious retrospective responses of woke Shakespeareans like Shaw.
A recurring theme in Smith’s treatment of the comedies is gender, and Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the process by which lovers forgo primary attachments to their own gender and move towards heterosexual marriage. The results are lively. The Merchant of Venice offers both the ‘sickeningly familiar’ spectacle of ‘a system of justice rigged on racial grounds’ and a ‘credit-fuelled courtship’ in which the value of a desirable young man is calculated in ducats and – almost – flesh. The titular merchant’s namesake in Twelfth Night, Antonio, an ex-pirate whose adoration of the shipwrecked Sebastian leads him to risk his neck in Illyria, is the hero of Smith’s chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘queer comedy’. She deftly shows how Antonio’s ‘irreconcilability into the married world of the finale’, a consequence of his extravagant passion for Sebastian, ‘complicates Twelfth Night’s movement from queer to straight, from homoeroticism to heterosexuality’. Her description of the play’s denouement – ‘as Antonio witnesses, it is a bittersweet conclusion, shot through with losses as well as gains’ – is unexpectedly moving.
In her epilogue, Smith notes the other directions she might have taken: Shakespeare’s collaborations, performance histories or history itself. Perhaps This Is Also Shakespeare will follow. What Smith calls ‘other outlines just visible’ are also present in Stott’s work, from Garrick’s beleaguered brother George to the elderly, sozzled Boswell weeping over William Henry Ireland’s forgery of a King Lear manuscript. Both This is Shakespeare and What Blest Genius? are curious, passionate revisions of the Shakespearean myth. They remind me why I came to enjoy Shakespeare so much in the first place.