The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0763  Friday, 22 April 2005

From:           Richard Burt <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 22 Apr 2005 09:20:55 -0400
Subject:        Rough Guide to Shakespeare

Birthday letter

In honour of Shakespeare's 441st birthday tomorrow, Andrew Dickson ,
author of the Rough Guide to Shakespeare, published next week, describes
the experience of spending three years in the company of the Bard

Friday April 22, 2005

Four hundred and forty one is not, admittedly, the most eye-catching of
anniversaries. Headlining actors are not scheduled to declaim specially
commissioned odes, as David Garrick did at the long-delayed Great
Jubilee of 1769. The RSC has no plans to hold a three-week-long festival
in a wooden tent perched on the edge of the Avon, unlike their hardy
theatrical ancestors of 1864. There will almost certainly be no
limited-edition stamps, concertos, teatowels or frescoes to commemorate
the fact that, four centuries ago this year, Shakespeare shuffled a
little further into middle age.

But, for me at least, there's plenty to celebrate. The playwright was a
bright-eyed, practically boyish 438 when I first began writing a book
about him; this April 23, as he stumbles into yet another 40-something
crisis, that book, The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, is finished and
sitting smugly on the edge of my desk. With the appropriate mix of
humility and reverence, I can at last offer the Bard a birthday present.

I hope he'll be pleased. Reaching 441 may seem to be an urgent reason to
break open the fizz, but in the three years I've been living with him,
Shakespeare has been in unusually energetic health. I've seen amateur
versions, touring productions, foreign-language adaptations. There have
been some mainstream masterstrokes - terrific Twelfth Nights at the
Globe and the Donmar Warehouse, Declan Donnellan's tour-de-force
Othello, which I caught up with in Cambridge. But there have also been
some gloriously improbable triumphs: a sold-out, Tarantino-style
adaptation of the cripplingly unfashionable Henry VI plays; two major
productions of Pericles, long one of Shakespeare's most undervalued
works (a third is scheduled to appear at the Globe this summer). Someone
took, of all things, a hip-hop Comedy of Errors up to Edinburgh and down
to London. The RSC staged not just a neglected Shakespearean poem (Venus
and Adonis, one of his greatest living successes), but a neglected
non-Shakespearean play (King Edward III, which is sufficiently unlikely
to be written by him that I excluded it from the book).

There's been plenty, too, for filmgoers to get excited about. Sumptuous
reissues of Olivier classics, yes, but also restored rarities such as
Herbert Beerbohm Tree's stint as King John a half-century earlier. The
shattering of a stubborn cinematic taboo late last year with the release
of Michael Radford's Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino's
retina-searing Shylock. The re-edited version of Welles's noirish
Othello (1952), which has at last become available on DVD in the UK.
Grigori Kozintsev's superlative (but long-unobtainable) versions of
Hamlet and Lear, which have just been painstakingly transferred to
digital by the Russian Cinema Council.

During the time it's taken me to write this book, students and scholars
have been treated to several major works and numerous top-notch
editions. More significantly, perhaps, the web has been evolving into a
genuinely flexible medium, capable of hosting everything from online
discussion groups and performance video clips to richly interactive
research tools, texts and facsimiles. Now more than ever, Shakespeare is
a multimedia icon, a figure we're just as likely to encounter via
broadband, DVD or CD as in the pages of a text or - even - live on stage.

Anyone interested in getting close to Shakespeare - schoolkids or
pensioners, dedicated theatregoers or intrigued first-timers - has a
huge range of routes to take. But where to start? How to choose between
the 18 different film versions of Hamlet currently on offer at Amazon,
let alone the 80-plus adaptations and spinoffs that feature, with
varying degrees of plausibility, on the Internet Movie Database?

Digging up answers to that question, and legions like it, has been one
of the big challenges of writing the Rough Guide. Striving to keep up
has been hard work, and in the process I've digested more Shakespeare
than it's entirely pleasant to recall. I had to buy first one, then two,
bookcases to house exponentially expanding quantities of editions and
criticism, and was only saved buying more by moving to a flat with
wall-to-wall shelves. I amassed enough Shakespearean audio tape to
threaten the integrity of the Earth's magnetic field, such a quantity of
CDs and DVDs that I seriously considered imposing a bespoke cataloguing
system. Nearly 100 Shakespearean films had to be scrutinised - an
arduous job even for a card-carrying bardolater like me; the stuff of
nightmares for my flatmates, who weren't even being paid to spend Friday
evenings watching Timon of Athens. (They were spared the 60-plus
audiobook adaptations, many of which I squeezed into a sequence of
slightly deranged train journeys.)

It was crucial to the spirit of the book that I treat all these
different manifestations of Shakespeare as equals - sometimes unruly,
often squabbling, always jostling for attention. But you can't do that,
however philosophically intriguing or intellectually appealing it might
be, for ever. Part of the challenge of writing a guide to a subject so
flirtatiously varied, so gloriously multitudinous, is in imposing order,
passing judgement.

Sometimes this was merely tricky, even with such apparently simple tasks
as writing a readable synopsis of Cymbeline. (How hard can it be, you
ask? Well, it drove even Samuel Johnson to lose his rag, denouncing the
plot as "folly".) Elsewhere it was agonising, terrifying: trying to
communicate the near-unbearable wistfulness of All's Well That Ends Well
without draining its life-quickening energy; attempting to do justice to
King Lear's pain and savagery without obscuring its jagged, fearful
beauty. Writing about texts that have taxed the imaginations and
intellects of centuries of critics, actors and directors can sometimes
make you too jumpy to write anything at all.

But then I wasn't entirely on my own. Assembling a guidebook to
Shakespeare has proved to be a surprisingly sociable experience - less a
lonely long-distance run than a companionable, chatty amble. Dragging
friends and relations along to the theatre or cinema is as good a way as
any of being reminded that, if new performances throw fresh light on old
texts, what different people think in response throws up an array of
stunningly varied reflections. Grumbling about an Antony, defending an
Isabella, or even just standing up for the merits of a scene change, has
produced some of my most vibrant memories of the book - more reliable,
mercifully, than my typically scrambled notes.

Debate and disagreement come as part of the contract, and they are the
elements of a creative friction that has kept me fired up throughout.
Some people have asked whether publishing a book on Shakespeare in my
mid-20s is entirely wise. Don't I know that it takes a lifetime to
understand the greatest works ever written? Haven't people died, or been
driven mad, striving to scale the Bard's sublime heights? Aren't I only
on the foothills?

To which my answer is: yes, probably, but then I'm not sure my view of
Shakespeare will ever stay rooted to the spot. Even now, reading words I
was tinkering with just a few months ago, I pick out statements I feel
inclined to challenge, questions I want to pose. I passionately hope
that, much as readers may argue with what I've written, when I'm older
and (perhaps) wiser I'll have wild, crockery-pulverising fights with my
younger self. That's entirely as it should be - and Shakespeare, one
suspects, would approve. Bring on 442.


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