Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany by Jane Armstrong.

Lazing on the banks of the Avon a couple of years ago, the shadow of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre protecting my lily white skin from the early evening sun, I had two books for company: Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age and Penguin’s The Shakespeare Miscellany. Both had been invaluable as I travelled about the various historic buildings-cum-tourist attractions, but both were also bewilderingly complex, the Bate because of its sheer level of academic detail, the Penguin because its couple of hundred pages, modelled on the similar volumes from Ben Schott, pack its information in a seemingly random order. Fine for dipping into but its staccato style obscuring its treasures.

The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany sandwiches itself neatly in-between, bringing the academic authority of a series which isn’t afraid to describe itself as “the critical edition of Shakespeare” to a kind of deconstructed biography of the bard that manages to contain the Penguin’s wit and knowledge whilst simultaneously placing it within a readable structure. There are seven sections: his life, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, authorship, style, facts and figures, use of language and afterlife, with short single paged synopses of all the plays in the canon (which in keeping with Arden’s general mood include Sir Thomas More, Double Falsehood and Edward III) and box-outs on related elements like “rhetoric” or “stage directions”.

At first glance, there’s not much material in Jane Armstrong’s volume that can’t be found in other similar guides. But the devil (as he surprisingly didn’t say first) is in the detail, because each section digs deeper than most. The passages on authorship manage to introduce then convincingly dismiss most of the potential theories within a few paragraphs. This is the first time I’ve seen the ways in which he employed language, “hendiadys” or “anaphora” explained lucidly enough for me to understand. I can now tell when Hamlet says “To Be Or Not To Be” if he’s doing so from a Quarto or Folio text. Most extraordinarily the sorry tale of Charles and Mary Lamb is explained, full of the kind of madness and murder that powers the plays they would successfully adapt.

There are few weaknesses. Dotting the synopses through the volume printed on grey-hewed pages tends to break up the flow of the text and because they’re in alphabetical order are rarely relevant to the accompanying section (Macbeth is a rare example). The considerations of adaptations and the afterlife of Shakespeare lack passion and is a subject better dealt with in the Penguin which offers a greater sense of the theatrical history of the plays, through anecdotes and quotes from participants. Some of the lists feel like filler; although there’s a useful box containing all the words Shakespeare originally did or didn’t coin (such a shame that "kickie-wickie" didn’t enter the vocabulary) the role call of “Eminent Shakespeareans” has little substance beyond names and dates and lists of roles (Helen Mirren played Diana, but where not told when or for whom).

Yet despite that, of all volumes I’ve seen so far, this is the one I’d recommend to students and as a gift because it isn’t embarrassed to become technical when its required, because it’s inquisitive and causes the reader to become inquisitive and a genuine sense of being spoken to as an equal, of wanting to lead us through someone else fascination with the subject (it includes a list of the plants which would be perfect if one wanted to set up a Shakespearean garden). When you’ve read as many books about Shakespeare as I’d obsessed through this year, it’s easy to become jaded after hearing the same anecdotes over and again. What the Arden Shakespeare Miscellany demonstrates is that it just depends who’s writing.

The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany by Jane Armstrong is published by Methuen Drama. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 9781408129104. Review copy supplied.

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