Friday, March 11, 2011

The Shakespeare Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works. Chief Consultant A.D. Cousins.

At first glance, The Shakespeare Encyclopedia is an impressive volume. Open up to any double page spread at random and the eye is greeted by a feast of colour from classical paintings illustrating the plays or well chosen photographs from a range of productions, broadly from the past decade underscoring that these aren’t dead plays, but stories and characters that continue to breath to this day. Visually it has everything you’d want from a coffee table book and even without reading the text you’re left with an overwhelming sense of the variety of the man’s work and how it has influenced culture across the decades and centuries.

Which isn’t to say the text itself is a disappointment, it just depends what you’re picking up this kind of book for. Eschewing the expected alphabetical list of entries from perhaps Aaron to York, the content is more akin to tomes with handbook or guide in the title, opening with biographical and contextual information, followed by individual entries for the plays and poetry in genre groupings. Which puts it in direct competition with the likes of the Rough Guide To Shakespeare, offering an overview of a vast subject for people who don’t want to have to wade into an Arden and just find a synopsis of the story and a brief outline of the themes.

What sets it apart, is the decision to employ multiple authors, twenty-odd academics from across the world and not straight-jacket them too much in how they structure their entries. There is a synopsis, a dramatis personae and relationships table but beyond that it is left to the author to emphasise what they believe are of most interest or importance be they sources, themes or production history rather than including all three by rote. This makes the book a more alert and vital read without the slight element of repetition that can creep in when a single author is attempting to bring the same level of interest to Timon of Athens as The Tempest.

That leaves the reader’s expectations continually flouted. The introduction seems like a fairly standard run through but two whole pages are dedicated to the apocrypha and whilst the content itself isn’t that detailed, it’s still surprising to Fair Em even mentioned. The first pop culture reference in the book is to Doctor Who on a page that also photographically highlights The Maori Merchant of Venice. The chief consultant A.D. Cousins isn’t quite as unorthodox as to gift Edward III a full entry (unlike Dorling Kindersley’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook) but the section on the sonnets and narrative poems is the longest and best illustrated I’ve seen.

In her Hamlet entry, Jane Kingsley-Smith, Senior Lecturer at Roehampton University offers a persuasive argument that far from its reputation as a model revenge tragedy, the play is most interested in rewriting the conventions set out by earlier works by injecting elements of Catholic guilt and a heavy burden of a title character conflicted by twin duties to his late father and the state. Adorned with photos of arguably the primary screen Hamlets, Olivier, Branagh, Smoktunovsky and Tennant (thanks to the blu-ray) Kingsley-Smith’s entry itself surprises by concentrating on the adaptation history of the play giving lip-service to both The Lion King and Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius.

Readers seeking a more structured analytical approach to the plays may feel alienated and also dissatisfied that pagination must to have been selected based on the popularity of the plays, with Lear gifted ten sides and The Two Noble Kinsmen just two, barely enough time to scratch the surface of what is a deceptively complex play. Picture captions are also a bit of a mixed bag. With such a glorious selection of production shots, I would have liked to have seen more clearer labelling of dates, venue and director, or in the case of paintings and sculpture their ownership and display, especially since this may be the only occasion when many of them are reproduced.

Which is what really makes this a very special volume. Similar guides contain these kinds of shots, but rarely this number, and most often in smudgy monochrome. But page after page is filled with scenes brought to life with a broad enough eye and heart to include both Patrick Stewart in the Chichester Festival Theatre and the straight to dvd production with Helena Baxendale as Lady Macbeth. Previously, my main impression of Timon of Athens is the cheap set and static staging of the BBC Shakespeare (which is notable by its absence here) but the action shot fro the Globe of Simon Pasiley Day hurling gold in the air with the Banditti scrabbling for it is enough to make me consider looking at the play in a new light.

The Shakespeare Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works. Chief Consultant A.D. Cousins. Published by Apple Press. £20.00. ISBN: 9781845433390. Review copy supplied.

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