Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Shakespeare: A Pictoral Biography by F.E. Halliday

Despite having read a few biographies of Shakespeare over the past few years, for some reason I never quite tire of them because like productions of his plays, they all seem to contain at least one memorable element which separates it from the rest, be it some new discovery or stylistic decision or approach to the material. Turn to the dedication page of F. E. Halliday’s Shakespeare: a pictorial biography and we find “To: BARBARA HEPWORTH in Friendship And Admiration”. As well as a Shakespeare scholar, he was a close friend of the St Ives circle after spending a year there during the second world war, a residency he later made permanent.

So the book is perhaps as interesting now for the biography of the author as the contents. But originally published in 1956 (this is a later book club reprint) it’s still nonetheless a fascinating read, not least because it’s less interested in the writing of the actual plays (which can be a speculation frenzy in the wrong hands) and spends much of its pagination offering a detailed context of the world in which the plays were written and performed. Viewing the canon in isolation, it’s easy to forget that Shakespeare’s career began at just the moment Mary Queen of Scots lost her head and the Spanish Armada.

Halliday also lucidly explains how the form of theatre Shakespeare employed developed from the first definable comedy (Ralph Roister Doister) and first definable tragedy (Gorboduc), both originally written to be performed by the boys of Eton. He argues that the reason Shakespeare gained such notoriety was because at his peak, no one else was writing with his quality and that it wasn’t until he reached semi-retirement that other playwrights found their voice. He also explains with clarity why the Globe is the shape it is: a mix of the traditional circular auditorium used previously for religious plays and the yards at the back of inns with their balcony viewing.

What kept me reading though was the obvious enthusiasm Halliday has for his subject (which isn’t always the case with some scholars). “No other writer has ever created a comparable company of men and women, humble and exalted, grave and gay, comic and tragic, noble and ignoble” he says before filling out the rest of that paragraph with a list of names (which fails to include anyone from Measure for Measure but I’ll forgive him that). On a few occasions his textual analysis amounts to printing a chunk of verse and pointing a lot in the way that some DJs offer their favourite tune with little to no explanation because, as is so often with Shakespeare, none is necessary.

No comments: