One is tempted to say of Stanley Wells’s lucid, learned and somewhat paradoxical new book, Shakespeare and Co: if you know nothing about Shakespeare, start your reading here. Wells does a valiant job of trying to rescue the real writer from his own posthumous publicity. We all think we know the slightly rakish chap with the piratical earring featured in the famous Chandos portrait. He is the greatest playwright in the English language™, the übermensch of the imagination partly invented by Coleridge. In fact, as the jaunty tone and design of Wells’s book acknowledge, the Shakespeare we have imagined is a kind of cartoon figure. Unfortunately, to cast Shakespeare as the central character in a book that attempts to dislodge him from the centre is a difficult and self-contradictory business, and Wells’s account suffers from that contradiction.
Nobody knew better than Shakespeare how difficult it is, and how tempting, to become an icon. Throughout his writing, he depicted people who long to leap out of the messiness of three-dimensional existence into the simplicity of allegory. ‘You do blaspheme the good, in mocking me,’ proclaims Isabella in Measure