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My Review

The book Shakespearean has my attention from the cover because if you've been here on That Shakespeare Life for a while you know we have a running joke around here about whether it should be spelled “Shakespearian” (rather British way to spell it) or “Shakespearean” (I've seen more Americans use this spelling, but honestly, it's a toss up and that's why it's a running joke. You'll hear guests on the podcasts and I occasionally laugh about this spelling difference). My preferred way to spell it is with an “e,” so I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit from the start.

While not written from a purely acaedmic perspective, and therefore lighter in weight than some other books on Shakespeare in historical context, in each chapter of Shakespearean, Robert McCrum cites history to make a larger point about why he feels Shakespeare remains relevant to us today. His love for the bard and certainly his personal story of using Shakespeare to overcome adversity is quite inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the story of his father's role in the discovery of the Marlowe portrait.

While Mr. McCrum's book references historical generalities and a few well selected bits of fact to relay interesting anecdotes about the bard, his plays, and our relationship to them, for a student of Shakespeare's history, this book is lacking in what I would call in depth information on the time period of 1564-1616. If you're already a student of this time period, you are not going to find much history in this book you didn't already know about Shakespeare himself or about the late 16th-early 17th century. As such, I wouldn't place this book on the same shelves as books by EK Chambers, James Shapiro, or Stanley Wells, in terms of content where the research will share a new discovery or be cited by academics and later authors as part of a larger work into Shakespeare studies on a global scale.

Mark me well, however, as I do not mean that assessment to be seen as a detriment, because I think this book serves a more unique purpose. Shakespearean makes the case that history is key to understanding Shakespeare's plays. Of course, that very premise is our main contention here at That Shakespeare Life and why we do what we do. It is refreshing to see someone come at Shakespeare studies and make an entertaining and eloquent case that in order to understand the plays, you have to understand the history of the man who wrote them. That cause and mission is dear to my heart. Shakesperean may not go deep into the history of William Shakespeare in the same kind of exhaustive detail of works like The Year of Lear, but I will argue it does not need to do that. Shakespearean does a great job of contextualizing Shakespeare and his plays in the history where they were written, while inviting you, as the reader, to explore the history yourself, inspiring you to learn something new about the bard.

We spoke with Mr. McCrum about a few aspects of his book, Shakespearean, to give you a preview of what's inside so you can decide for yourself if you want to read it. Here's what he had to say:

Our Conversation

1. What was your father’s role at Cambridge that lead to his discovery of Marlowe’s portrait? Did he help with the restoration?

Michael McCrum(my father) was “senior tutor”, ie executive head, of Corpus Christi college, the medieval foundation in which the  putative Marlowe portrait was first discovered. When the student who found the two pieces of wood containing “the portrait” on a skip, realised they might have special importance, it was natural for him to take the pieces to my father in the first instance. All my Dad did on the “restoration” was to arrange for it to be sent to London to some expert restorers.

2. Is there any surviving evidence to suggest Shakespeare and Marlowe knew each other?

Not really, though it’s a reasonable supposition. We certainly do know they collaborated on parts of Henry VI (an early Shakespeare history play) and worked for the same theatre companies. It’s inconceivable that their paths did not cross in the very intimate circumstances of the metropolitan theatre world of Elizabethan London. Plus, Shakespeare demonstrates, in many passages from his own work, an intimate knowledge of Marlowe’s writing.

3.  Robert names his book “Shakespearean” and he talks in Chapter 1 of his book about the source and definition of the word. Robert, do you have any definitive stance on whether it should be spelled Shakespearean or Shakespearian?

Shakespeare’s name (through history) has been rendered in many different ways. I settled on “Shakespearean” because I thought it looked nicer!

4. From your experience studying Shakespeare’s plays over the last 20 years, all the way to the production of this book, is it your opinion that we can know about Shakespeare himself through the history and context of his plays?

Yes, when you immerse yourself in the Complete Works, as I have done, you get a very clear, if sometimes shadowy, sense of the man behind the plays as a whole.

5. Are you still a member of The Shakespeare Club? What do they do and are they still accepting members?

Yes, but they are a close-knit  informal society of journalists, writers and academics, that’s quite clandestine, even secretive, but – alas – they are no longer accepting new members. Over the years, they’ve turned aside overtures from quite a number of well-known would-be members. Full disclosure: I’ve listed our members, by name, in an end-note to p. 19, on page 330 of Shakespearean.

6. Why did Shakespeare’s reputation survive past the closure of the theater and into the Restoration?

It’s all to do with his genius  as a playwright, and his instinctive modernity. His stories, in particular, address universal themes which resonate with international audiences.

7. In your book, you write that Shakespeare “knows what it is like to be an actor.” How do we know Shakespeare was an actor before becoming a playwright? What history is there to inform that part of his life?

We know that he was a member of various London theatre companies from 1589-1593, and we know he was part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until they became the King’s Men on the accession of James I in 1603. These are documented facts. There’s also the oral tradition that says Shakespeare played the Ghost in Hamlet, together with the scholarly supposition that he also delivered the epilogues to many of his plays, as “the author”.

8. Why do you think growing up in Stratford Upon Avon, specifically, influenced Shakespeare’s becoming a playwright?

Shakespeare would have grown up with local versions of the medieval English mystery plays. He would also have witnessed touring theatre groups performing in Stratford’s  inn-yards.  But it would have been glamorous tales of the London theatre world, filtering back to the provinces, which would have inspired him to strike out for the city. His childhood and adolescence in Stratford would also have taught him about the intense national hunger, amongst all classes of English citizens, for vernacular drama in contemporary English.

9. Shakespeare’s history plays are based on real people and events, but Robert writes that they are “far from mere documentary versions.” Robert, how much of the politics and culture of 16th century Tudor England is embedded into Shakespeare’s version of history?

What’s embedded in his plays is an unwavering version of the recent English (ie Tudor) past that presents the dynasty in a compelling, and acceptable, light.

10. We know that Robert Greene was none to happy to have William Shakespeare, that “upstart crow” arrive on the scene in London, but do we have any additional records that might indicate whether Greene’s opinion was the general one concerning Shakespeare, or are there other records that suggest the young Will Shakespeare was well received?

Greene is interesting precisely because he is so uniquely hostile to Stratford’s “jack of all trades’. Later in the 1590s, several other contemporary writers praise Shakespeare as a great poet, the “English Ovid”. It’s clear from those records that he’s well-liked, and much admired. The real acclaim would come in the1600s.

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