Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Shakespeare On Theatre (2013) Book Review
Anyone who knows Shakespeare at all is familiar with Jacques’ famous speech in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” But Shakespeare expressed this idea also in The Merchant Of Venice, when Antonio laments, “A stage where every man must play a part,/And mine a sad one.” And elsewhere throughout his work, in both his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare includes references to the stage and stagecraft, and sometimes features plays within plays (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Nick de Somogyi’s new book, Shakespeare On Theatre, collects and explores the various stage references in Shakespeare’s work. As he writes in the introduction, “Whether in the relish with which Richard of Gloucester raids the props-basket, the impatience Othello barks at a premature prompt, or the anxious interpretation Bassanio places on an appreciative audience, Shakespeare drew repeated inspiration from the daily circumstances of his working life, almost as if unbidden to his mind” (page xiv).
This is not simply a book of quotations (there are plenty of those). This book provides details regarding the business and structure of theatre during Shakespeare’s lifetime, putting his words into that context. It is divided into different sections, each being an element of the theatre. The first section is “Prologues and Inductions,” and includes prologues to Henry The Fifth, Henry The Eighth and Romeo And Juliet, among others. And there is of course a discussion on the induction of The Taming Of The Shrew (and The Taming Of A Shrew).
Other sections include “Auditions, Casting, and Parts”; “Learning Lines and Rehearsing Roles”; “Props and Costumes, Notes and Rewrites”; “Theatres and Scenery”; “Fluffs, Prompts, Cues, and Snags”; and “Audiences, Critics, and Tours.” Two plays that Nick de Somogyi returns to frequently are Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for obvious reasons), but he uses quotes from most of Shakespeare’s works, including some of the more dubious works such as The Two Noble Kinsmen and Sir Thomas More. Nick de Somogyi also includes bits from other playwrights of the time, including Ben Jonson and John Webster (Webster’s induction to Marston’s The Malcontent is particularly interesting).
One thing I appreciate is that Nick de Somogyi takes into consideration the various versions that we have of some of Shakespeare’s plays. For example, in the chapter on “Learning Lines and Rehearsing Roles,” he quotes from the Q1 version of Hamlet. Also, the book does not just include those great speeches that everyone knows, but brief theatre references like those in Coriolanus (“Like a dull actor now/I have forgot my part and I am out”).
This book helps to give you a new perspective on some familiar lines as well. For example, de Somogyi quotes the passage from The Tempest when Prospero tells Miranda how they came ashore. Many people consider The Tempest to be Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre, but I hadn’t considered that in relation to this scene. Nick de Somogyi writes, “It is no accident that in The Tempest – probably Shakespeare’s most self-consciously theatrical play – the arch-magician Prospero’s description to his daughter of their original shipwreck refers to ‘garments’, ‘stuffs’, and ‘books’: ‘necessaries’ surely of less use to desert-island castaways than to the strolling players who might now exchange the stuffed ‘cloak-bags’ of their touring luggage…for the permanent tiring-house backstage” (page 70).
And in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Bottom and Snout each suggest writing a prologue to avoid offense and fear from the audience, this “drolly exaggerates both the permanent deference of Shakespeare’s own ‘mechanical’ trade as a playwright, and the means by which his theatre company so often tailored their plays to the specific circumstances of its premiere, transfer, or revival” (page 91).
Nick de Somogyi returns to the idea of all the world being a stage in the chapter on “Fluffs, Prompts, Cues, Snags,” quoting Sonnet 23: “As an unperfect actor on the stage/Who with his fear is put besides his part.” And he points out that great moment in Hamlet when Polonius forgets what he was saying, and how it may very well be seen as the actor playing Polonius drying on stage. Regarding poor acting, he writes: “Bad actors have always been a fairly easy target for good actors to satirize, of course. What is remarkable is how often Shakespeare returned to the theme in his Tragedies, in those moments when the human suffering they depict gains extra dimension by the sudden backstage glimpse of a performance going wrong, in the theatre of life in which we all play our parts” (page 129).
By the way, you do not have to be a Shakespeare expert to enjoy this book. It’s quite easy to follow, and includes a glossary in the back, with notes and definitions not just on certain words, but also explanations of certain phrases found in the quoted passages.
Shakespeare On Theatre is the first in a projected series on playwrights regarding the subject of theatre itself. Shakespeare On Theatre was released on April 23, 2013 through Opus Book Publishers.
(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)