I made jokes in my last two posts about how I’m not trying to talk down to anyone, which, as is true whenever anyone makes that kind of joke, means one of two things: I was talking down to you, or I have a paralyzing fear that people will think I think I know more than them and be mad at me for it.
Obviously it’s the second one. But those posts were both kind of in the realm of ‘ha ha I like to think about Shakespeare really closely and academically and you should too,’ so I thought a change of pace might be in order. That’s why today I’m recommending a book I think everyone should read, regardless of how much you know or think you know about Shakespeare. It’s simultaneously one of the most accessible and comprehensive books on his work I’ve ever read.
That book is Emma Smith’s This is Shakespeare, published in 2016. I got it in e-book form from the library and I’ve now returned it, so if you live in Seattle this is your chance to snatch it up.
(Trigger warning for brief mention of incest)
I don’t know how to describe my experience of reading this book except to say that I’ve been watching a lot of youtube recently, and this feels like a really well-crafted video essay. Super easy to follow along with, explains difficult concepts in layman’s terms, speaks in a very casual tone that makes you feel like the author is your friend. Basically, everything I aspire to be.
Sometimes when I read books that by all rights should be easy to understand – I’m thinking specifically of the Arden edition of King John; fuck whoever wrote that (just looked it up; fuck you, John Tobin and Jesse Lander) – I find myself having to google the definition of words because the author decided to flex the fact that they own a thesaurus. That’s absolute bullshit; the point of a critical edition of a Shakespeare play shouldn’t be to force me to expand my vocabulary in the introduction. It makes me feel stupid, and I don’t like that.
Smith does a fantastic job of sounding very formal and academic and yes, using words that if you asked me to define off the top of my head I maybe couldn’t, but in a sneaky way so I was able to understand everything perfectly. She does really like “bathetic,” which I did have to look up and it turns out she really could have just said “anticlimactic”, but she also defined “teleology” for me, which no other writer on Shakespeare has ever bothered to do. 1
The book really hits its stride around page 130, with a brilliantly comedic segue of “the result? Even more Falstaff, in 2 Henry IV” directly into “CHAPTER 9: Much Ado About Nothing” on the following page. It chugs along for the next hundred or so pages as it hits all of Shakespeare’s career highlights (and Measure for Measure). Unfortunately then we hit the year 1607 and a chapter on Macbeth which… didn’t really say anything? (Full disclosure; I don’t like Macbeth so maybe it did and I just didn’t care.)
My main takeaway from Smith’s choice to order her chapters chronologically is that it’s a lot easier to write compelling criticism of Shakespeare plays when the plays themselves are interesting. There are good moments in each of the chapters on his less-good plays, but it often feels a bit like she doesn’t want to be writing them.
It does sometimes feel like Smith is trying too hard – she calls Bianca in John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed “a woke reboot of Shakespeare’s ditsy kid sister” (woke is dead, come on, get with the times) and her discussion of race in Othello is… kind of rough, but those were really the only times it bothered me.
The one thing I really strongly disagree with (and that I want to point out as fair warning to you if you do read it) is her analysis of The Winter’s Tale – or more specifically, the part of her analysis where she repeatedly insinuates that Shakespeare was preoccupied with father-daughter incest and resurrected Hermione as a way to avoid dealing with that. To kind of vaguely imply that Shakespeare was attracted to his own daughters and then not address it feels glaringly irresponsible. She goes to lengths to debunk the “Prospero=Shakespeare” and “Hamnet=Hamlet” myths, so why she’s so careless here is confusing to me.
All that said, this book is just fun. I highlighted a bunch of passages because I thought maybe they’d be useful for this post, but then I looked back over them and realized I’d just highlighted sentences that made me laugh. 2 Also, super not important, but she makes a weird throwaway reference to the Asterix comics, which I read all the time as a kid and are the reason I still can’t spell asterisk correctly on the first try.
Fun fact: when I googled “Roan Barbary” to see if that was the actual name of Richard II’s horse or just its color and breed (jury’s still out, but since a roan barb(ary) is literally just a kind of horse, either Richard is really unimaginative or Smith is wrong), I learned that the wikipedia article on the barb horse lists “Roan Barbary” as a famous historical horse. And here you thought Richard III and Cleopatra were the only historical figures ruined forever by Shakespeare.
Should you read it? When should you read it?
Absolutely, right now.
This book is honestly so good, and I learned a lot. I think you could learn a lot even if you haven’t read the plays she talks about, and if you have, I guarantee you’ll still come out of it with new things to think about.
I’m not going to recommend any books to read before this one, because truly I think you could read this book having never touched a Shakespeare play in your life and still enjoy it. If there’s any one book to begin your Shakespeare journey with, it’s this one.
- It comes from telos, meaning “ultimate” or “end”, and refers to the literary practice of defining something by its ultimate goal rather than its cause. Shakespeare scholars love it. ↩
- Personal favorites: “it’s already absolutely clear that [Coriolanus] despises the poor, so we don’t need another, more subtle way to reveal that, underneath, he also despises the poor” and “in ancient Britain, life’s a bitch (not to mention your daughters), and then you die”. ↩