Shakespeare For All Time

Review of Shakespeare For All Time, by Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

For almost four hundred years William Shakespeare has captured the imaginations of readers and actors. The sheer volume of Shakespearian biographies and monographs testifies to this fascination. William Shakespeare has become more than a brilliant playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon: he has become the stuff of myth. Stanley Wells' Shakespeare For All Time, published in 2003, attempts to put the man back into the myth without undermining the mythos. This work is the capstone achievement of a long and brilliant career in Shakespearian scholarship of the Stratfordian camp. Wells, who has worked on numerous editions of Shakespeare's plays, headed the Shakespeare Department at the University of Oxford Press, served as a member of the Shakespeare Institute and as chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has lived his life as a professional Shakespearian. Intimately familiar with Shakespeare's works and with the productions of them, Wells is well-positioned to demonstrate just how meaningful Shakespeare has been to generations of English-speakers and to the whole world. Shakespeare For All Time is really two works combined into one enjoyable read. The first three chapters give a biography of Shakespeare. The last six comprise a history of the productions of Shakespeare and an account of his developing reputation.

In the first two chapters, Wells traces the life of Shakespeare from Stratford to London. He devotes the third chapter to Shakespeare as writer, drawing on the plays and sonnets for evidence of the man who has become myth. Wells argues that the education the playwright received in Stratford produced a familiarity with many classical works and an ability to read and write Latin with facility. With this contention, Wells essentially dismisses Ben Jonson's quip about Shakespeare's "small Latin." The author neglects, dismisses, or glosses over some other, more controversial issues, as well. For instance, Wells sidesteps the issue of Shakespeare's religious leanings and the possibility that his father became a Catholic. One of the most intriguing claims of this book is Wells' rejection of the idea that Shakespeare largely abandoned Stratford and his family for twenty years. Rather unorthodoxly, he argues that Shakespeare was the "first great literary commuter," maintaining his home in Stratford to write for the stages in London (37). This is an argument that is likely to hit home with his target audience, many of whom are likely to be commuters themselves.

Wells believes Shakespeare to be the best and most deservedly renowned of writers. For Wells Shakespeare was a "poetic dramatist" not just a poet who wrote dramas. (151) His language was meant to be comprehended by stage audiences, not to be read. Thus, it is not surprising that Shakespeare left many decisions out of the manuscript, to be communicated later or to be decided through collaboration with the players. This argument also explains why the most brilliant of playwrights did little to assure that his plays would be published and consequently preserved for posterity.

The remainder of the book primarily provides a production history of Shakespeare from the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 to the twenty-first century. Although this section also examines the origins of Shakespearian biographies and scholarship, its focus is on the theatrical standpoint. The emphasis on productions of Shakespeare reinforces Wells' argument that Shakespeare's writings were meant, first and foremost, for theatrical performance.

Changes in theatre after the Restoration significantly impacted the staging of Shakespeare. Writers like William Davenant and John Dryden both made alterations, adding music, speeches, parts, and changing lines. This was a trend that would largely continue for the next two centuries. Shakespeare's plays continued to be performed and his pre-eminence in England was guaranteed by the 1740s. At this point David Garrick entered and came to dominate the production scene. Garrick adapted the plays and was behind the first Jubilee in Stratford, as well. During the nineteenth century, Shakespeare fame spread across Europe. Nineteenth-century romanticism gave way to Victorianism. Victorian scholarship brought more attempts at proving Shakespeare's plays were written by someone else, such as the Earl of Oxford. Rather ironically, this period was also when textual restoration began to gain steam.

With the birth of the film industry, came new ways of treating Shakespeare's plays. The production of the plays reflected the times. For example, Troilus and Cressida, had sudden resonance in the twentieth century with its preoccupations with war and sex. Also, as Wells rightly observes, directors rather than producers were becoming the main impetus behind both staged and filmed productions. Great film actors emerged, such as Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

While Shakespeare biographies come in abundance, Wells brings a refreshing take on the man and the myth. Although at times, the author rushes through various productions and glosses over various problems of Shakespearian scholarship, this book is both accessible and highly enjoyable. Lusciously illustrated with both black and white and color plates, Shakespeare For All Time makes the world of Shakespeare studies and production come vividly to life in the hands of the reader. It is an appropriate homage to all who have loved the swan of the Avon.