An electrifying new study that investigates the challenges of the Bard's inconsistencies and flaws, and focuses on revealing, not resolving, the ambiguities of the plays and their changing topicality.
A genius and prophet whose timeless works encapsulate the human condition like no others. A writer who surpassed his contemporaries in vision, originality, and literary mastery. A man who wrote like an angel, putting it all so much better than anyone else.
Is this Shakespeare? Well, sort of.
But it doesn't tell us the whole truth. So much of what we say about Shakespeare is either not true, or just not relevant. Now, Emma Smith - an intellectually, theatrically, and ethically exciting writer - takes us into a world of politicking and copycatting, as we watch Shakespeare emulating the blockbusters of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, the Spielberg and Tarantino of their day; flirting with and skirting round the cutthroat issues of succession politics, religious upheaval, and technological change. Smith writes in strikingly modern ways about individual agency, privacy, politics, celebrity, and sex, and the Shakespeare she reveals in this book poses awkward questions rather than offering bland answers, always implicating us in working out what it might mean.
Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford. She has lectured widely in the UK and beyond on the First Folio and on Shakespeare and early modern drama. Her research interests include the methodology of writing about theatre, and developing analogies between cinema, film theory and early modern performance. Her recent publications include Macbeth: Language and Writing (2013), The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide (Cambridge, 2012) and Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016).
This is Shakespeare is a delightful easy reading book.
Emma Smith argues that Shakespeare remains continually interesting because his plays are incomplete, plot holes and unanswered questions allowing thinking space for audiences and performers throughout the generations.
The book contains twenty chapters each about a different play and an epilogue (because it is Shakespearian) and she does not take a consistent line through all these chapters but picks up on different issues as prompted by the play, so in Richard II she looks at character, observing that Richard behaves as if he is in a tragedy and so is fatalistic, while his rival acts as though he is in a history play and is dynamic, she draws our attention here to language too, once that rival takes the throne he begins to use end rhymes in his speeches so he sounds like an insincere politician . And smith shows how Shakespeare invented the sequel and the spin off to accommodate the popularity of the Falstaff character from 1 Henry IV!
In other places Smith looks at the actors, that companies had fewer actors than the plays had parts, that Shakespeare later on had an actor who could play adult female parts convincingly allowing him to devise the character of Cleopatra (there were only male actors allowed on stage at the time). While in a Merchant of Venice, she looks at the language of commerce and the commercialisation of relationships. Macbeth reminds her of the Anatomy of Melancholy, it becomes a play playing with ideas of motivation and causation. Throughout she looks at changing interpretations, sometimes driven by what is known about Shakespeare's life. It is a thoroughly entertaining exploration. This review is really all about the updates.
Shakespeare has always seemed inherently unapproachable to me, layers of meaning mired in incomprehensible conversations that I had no means of untangling. Everything about his plays felt decided. Treasured, they sat on a high pedestal, presented as the most sublime expression of English language and literature. There to be adored. Nothing about them made for the likes of me. My memory of studying Macbeth at secondary school is part terror at being called on to read aloud and part boredom at learning by rote what this symbolises or that means. There was no room, and probably no time, for anything more than answers at that point. No space to think or explore. When I started to discover Greek tragedy at uni, I found something new. That plays are about questions, not answers. It came as a revelation.
And this is what Emma Smith brings to Shakespeare: a way in. She demolishes the idea of perfection and highlights the 'gappiness' of the plays. She gives permission to not understand it all, because nobody does. Who can when the reader/audience is such an integral part of the experience? And who says there's a 'right' way to read something anyway? She brings in conflicts/change, opening up varied ways of thinking about themes or characters or plot. She doesn't say, 'this is what to think'. Instead she asks, ponders, offers, argues, suggests... 'what happens if you take this aspect and look at it like this...' or 'see how this could be more like/unlike than you'd think...' It's intriguing. More than that, it presents an opportunity. Because the author repeatedly asks what I think, I want to know too. It took less than 2 chapters for me to download Shakespeare's collected works. And the change in my reading was incredible, it was fun instead of oppressive. Do I still have problems with the language? Oh yes. But now I can both tackle it and see beyond it.
Obviously, this is a fantastic resource for students. But Emma Smith ensures that anyone from the complete beginner to the seasoned reader/watcher of Shakespeare can find something within. She writes engagingly throughout, balancing humour and wit with thought-provoking argument. Considering the considerable number of Shakespeare retellings popular in fiction these days, there's clear evidence that something in these stories continues to capture our attention, and this book is an interesting and accessible way in to those original works. It takes you beyond the classroom, bringing you close enough to the stage to feel part of the production and maybe, finally, to see why some people consider Shakespeare THE greatest writer and dramatist.
(though I still prefer the Greek plays, sorry Shakespeare)
This Is Shakespeare is an essay collection by Shakespeare scholar and Oxford lecturer Emma Smith, whose work I first encountered on her excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare. In each lecture-turned-podcast-episode she dissects a different play through the lens of a very specific question ("what is the narrative and thematic role of Antonio in Twelfth Night," "why does Bassanio choose the lead casket in Merchant of Venice," "why doesn't Marcus offer Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus").
This Is Shakespeare is basically just her podcast in book form and slightly condensed, but you certainly don't need to be familiar with her already (and in fact, it's probably better if you aren't--I didn't mind the repetition between this book and her podcasts, but for someone even marginally less invested, these essays might feel extraneous). An interest in Shakespeare, whether you've read all of his plays or only read one, is really the only requirement to picking this up. Smith doesn't give broad strokes overviews of the plays, but instead she zeroes in on details that stick out to her in each one, which start to tie into one another with the more essays you read. This was an incisive, thoughtful, and ultimately fun read that certainly helped augment my understanding of each of the 20 plays she covers.
Smith is probably best known as the academic whose recorded lectures form the podcast series Approaching Shakespeare, which you can get from iTunes. (I went to them live, as an undergrad, which is saying something because no English students went to lectures after about third week.) Her book’s thesis is that we should read Shakespeare, not because he’s an immortal genius or whatever the propagandistic nonsense du jour is, but because his plays are weird: they’re gappy, ambivalent, they ask more questions than they answer. Each chapter deals with a single question arising from one of the plays (they’re not all covered here, but there’s a good spread). Lucid, accessible, and fresh, this would be just as perfect for someone who’s slightly anxious about Shakespeare, as for someone who already loves his work.
'This Is Shakespeare' (2019) by Emma Smith (Professor of Shakespeare Studies/ Hertford College) is an informed, passionate and extremely well considered attempt to grasp the essence of Shakespeare's standing as 'The World's Greatest Playwright' and to convey how and why he still matters in the 21st century.
Whilst Smith clearly has a highly accomplished academic career along with her very popular University of Oxford Shakespeare podcasts and whilst she does bring to bear that academic background underpinning 'This Is Shakespeare' - this is an accessible book, whilst at the same time not pandering to, or patronising the non academic reader.
Smith examines 20 key Shakespeare plays in (as far as we understand it) chronological order, from 'The Taming if the Shrew' through to 'The Tempest' and looks at how Shakespeare is questioning, ambiguous, open to interpretation, gappy (as she puts it) and not a writer of 'message'plays, hence to at least some extent, his longevity and relevance to all peoples across all times.
As someone who feels privileged to have seen all of Shakespeare's plays in the theatre (and some many times) especially considering the current pandemic and the absence of live theatre - this book came as somewhat a revelation. 'This Is Shakespeare' in some respects outlines the brilliance and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare that perhaps I'd only really partly understood until now - it has also made me reconsider aspects of all of the 20 plays written about here, that I had never previously considered.
Shakespeare and his plays have of course been the subject of endless academic/non-academic analysis over the centuries - quite often it seems by authors serving merely to support their own particular political, artistic or cultural agenda.
Ultimately though and as Smith alludes to here - Shakespeare's genius is much bigger than all of that and I really can't convey everything here in Smith's great book any better than the fantastic sentence at the very end of the epilogue to 'This Is Shakespeare':
"So, this is Shakespeare. Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary. Yours."
This a great book, going a long way to outlining and explaining the more unexpected and surprising reasons behind the brilliance and categoric genius that is William Shakespeare - the world's greatest playwright.
When I took English Literature classes at school, studying a Shakespeare play was de rigueur. And I can’t say I disliked that. Quite the contrary. I took a (worryingly?) nerdish pleasure in comparing different editions of Julius Caesar and Macbeth, reading every last footnote, looking up difficult essays on the plays. And yet, this precocious enthusiasm failed to translate into love for the Bard. It pains me to admit that besides these two plays, my knowledge of other works by Shakespeare works is limited to the few productions and movie adaptations I’ve watched over the years. I have occasionally attempted to read other plays of his, but it always seems too daunting a prospect.
In her introduction to This is Shakespeare, Professor Emma Smith highlights this problematic aspect of the playwright. Precisely because he is so often presented as an undisputed genius, Shakespeare too often comes across as a figure to admire rather than love. Smith, however, argues that what makes Shakespeare so “contemporary” and relevant is not that he is some sort of prophet, but because his plays are “gappy”, leaving much to interpretation, and allowing us to project onto them differing and sometimes diametrically opposite views. Just by way of example, it is surprising to note how rare it is for Shakespeare to physically describe his characters, thus giving free rein to a director’s (or reader’s) imagination.
Smith’s book started life as a series of lectures/podcasts and while the playwright’s “gappiness” remains an overarching theme, the book’s twenty chapters (and epilogue) are dedicated to specific plays and can be enjoyed as self-contained essays. Indeed, Smith herself suggests that for many of her readers, this will be a book to “dip into”, perhaps before going to watch a specific play.
The chapters provide intriguing insights and, more often than not, a discussion of one work leads Smith to investigate a more general subject. For instance, The Taming of the Shrew (unsurprisingly) prompts a discussion about Shakespeare’s views on women and marriage, whereas the essay on The Merchant of Venice explores the themes of business contracts and the play’s inherent homoeroticism.
Smith’s approach is fresh and engaging. She wears her scholarship and erudition lightly, and does not deem it beneath her to cite pop culture to drive home her points – she is just as likely to refer to Homer Simpson or to an episode in the sitcom Friends as to an avant-garde Shakespeare production. Throughout, her message is at once iconoclastic and enthusiastic – by taking Shakespeare off his pedestal, we might learn to love his works more.
Emma Smith's collection of essays about 20 Shakespeare plays is serious, funny, acerbic, refreshing, witty, stimulating and at times outright provocative, but perhaps not always the easiest introduction to Shakespeare. Instead, Smith serves as a wonderful companion to catch up with after going to the theatre, or when you're reading your favourite play and you want to gain more insight into Shakespeare and what makes him still relevant today. What's so good about Smith is that she doesn't revere his work as epitomes of perfection, but as works written under time constraints, which often needed to be reworked or changed. Warmly recommended to Shakespeare enthusiasts!
The essays in this book are abridged versions of the longer lectures. It's worth chasing them down for more development of the great ideas here. Here is the link: https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/appr...
The premise that Shakespeare's plays don't convey messages rather they ask questions isn't groundbreaking but here it's clearly articulated and wonderfully narrated by the author. It's definitely not an overview—there are no synopses—instead for about 20 of his plays, though she name checks all of them, Emma Smith finds one or two ambiguities—what she calls "gappiness"—that interest her and picks at them via a dive into his sources, contemporary and historical interpretations, and pop cultural references.
The chapters on Richard II, Richard III and Antony and Cleopatra were excellent but others were uneven; some focused on (limited) aspects of plot and/or character while others went heavy on stagecraft and Shakespeare's experiments in genre busting. For example the emphasis on the financial gamble Bassanio made in order to win Portia's hand—with scant attention paid to the courtroom drama—in The Merchant of Venice works well because it's an unusual approach. The discussion about stage directions and the mid-play genre switch away from the expected tragedy in The Winter's Tale wasn't as interesting. Weirdly in an otherwise fine chapter on A Midsummer Night's Dream, the names of the two young Athenians Lysander and Demetrius were mixed up. Ms. Smith did make the point that they're relatively indistinguishable, as did Shakespeare within the plot, but the (probably?) intentional mix-up was too meta for me. And the chapters on Henry IV and The Tempest and King Lear: triple yawn! Being told that Falstaff and Prospero are fascinating and Cordelia's death is the saddest moment in Shakespeare doesn't make it so. Still it was entertaining enough that I'll listen to it again, probably soon knowing me.
Emma Smith is a professor of Shakespeare at Oxford and the creator of a well known Shakespeare podcast Approaching Shakespeare.
In "This is Shakeseare" she writes concise but interesting and very entertaining essays on 20 of Shakespeare's most famous plays.
Even though I have read several other books of critical analysis of Shakespeare I still found many new and enlightening takes on these very studied plays. I especially appreciated the lack of elitist language and attitude which unfortunately can be common in books from Shakespeare scholars. Emma comes off as very knowledgeable but down to earth and fun.
As expected I found her chapters on my favorite plays the histories to be my favorites but I'm sure that is my bias not a failing of the author.
When talking about Antony and Cleopatra she points to Antony and Cleopatra's fear of humiliation as their primary motivation. "What A & C fear of public show, or at least public show that is not on their terms". Emma also pointed out that Shakespeare seemed to take a turn towards more complicated female characters which she believes may have been a result of a new actor more capable to carrying complicated female roles which I find believable and fascinating to think about. If it's true than we might not have some of Shakespeare's most interesting female roles like Cleopatra if not for this actor who we don't know.
One of the best examples of Emma's different approach can be found in her chapter on Henry IV part one when talking about Falstaff. She references Homer Simpson and quotes a few lines of his which I love. I'm guessing most Shakespeare scholars would never consider doing this which is what makes me appreciate it that much more.
'All these examples show how Shakespeare can resonate in particular circumstances, and how we can bring to the plays our own emotional, political, ideological and creative energies.'
Who ever thought that a book about Shakespeare would shake me out of my reading slump?
My intention when I bought this was just to read a chapter every so often but once I started it was hard to stop. The way Emma Smith writes with such passion has this power to have you gripped from the start. Some books about Shakespeare are hard to follow and over complicate things but I found this easy to follow and highly fascinating.
My favourite chapters were those about Twelfth Night (biased as this is my favourite of Shakespeare's works), Richard III and A Midsummers Night's Dream.
This will definitely be a book I will go back to before or after watching an adaption or reading a play.
I DO like this. OK I'm a pushover for Shakespeare. What can I say. But, this reminds us that he is a playwright first and foremost. Not the great I am that he is now. (And rightly so!!!!) This book talks about his plays and the interpretations that followed in a intelligent and informed way so you can form your own opinion. (Here! Here!) A must for anyone and everyone - the interested, those who have 'to study him' and those who 'watch' and 'play' with him. Its not ABC Shakespeare, it just takes the 'snobby intellectualism' away. So read and enjoy so you can see what Shakespeare the playwright has to offer, which is so so so very much. Toast
Just like the person herself, this book was delightful. Emma was my Shakespeare Professor (tutor) in Grad School while I was at Oxford, and the book reads like how many of our seminars went: joyfully romping through the weedy wilderness of Shakespeare’s mind. Emma is one of the greatest living Shakespeare specialists on the planet, and she writes this book with whimsy. She encourages you to read Shakespeare with a kind of rambunctious enthusiasm. But she also expertly interweaves her immense body of knowledge into her explications leaving you to consider the bard from an entirely new perspective. It’s a gregarious book, and it’s perfect for those new to Shakespeare or veterans to his work. You’ll love it.
Definitely mind-provoking and almost always astute. Playful, too. The deitic 'This' and the familiarity it implies in the title is surely artful: Smith looks at those plays entrenched in the cultural imagination only to turn them afresh and anew with a light and deft touch.
The subtitle, “How to read the world’s greatest playwright,” is a bit misleading, as Emma Smith emphasizes reading and seeing the plays as enjoyment, not out of any academic or cultural duty. In a welcoming, breezy introduction, she suggests that the “sheer and permissive gappiness of his drama” draws us in, so that the plays “need us … to make sense.” She focuses on twenty plays from early to late, with many references to stage and screen performance. Citation of source texts and other scholars happens in paragraph form at the end, not intruding on the discussion of the plays, and there’s an index. I’m surprised that she doesn’t refer more to the reconstructed Globe—mention of a review of the 1999 Antony and Cleopatra is all we get. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Really quite fantastic. Smith draws you to the centre of Shakespeare - the gaps - whilst rejecting any mythology or elitism. Instead she projects a history of interpretation that is as indistinguishable from the plays as Shakespeare's words themselves.
Her chapters on Lear and Romeo & Juliet are particularly poignant, but each chapter is genuinely worth its salt. Also incredibly approachable, and well structured.
A series of terrific chapters analyzing mini of Shakespeare’s plays. Listening to this audiobook was like taking and exceptional lecture course from a leading expert in the field. The author does a great job of making her insides accessible to those who are familiar with the plays.
This is one of those books where you get the impression that the author and the blurb writer never actually met. Because one thing this book certainly isn't is a guide on how to read Shakespeare.
What we actually get is a series of essays or chapters on selected plays. A chapter on Romeo and Juliet, a chapter on Richard II and so on. In each chapter Emma Smith makes a point about the play in question.
For example in the chapter on Romeo and Juliet she focuses on the fact that the play starts with the prologue which basically tells the audience how the play is going to end. No need for spoiler alerts here. And that gets us into a discussion about inevitability and audience expectations. And while it's all very interesting, it doesn't feel like an introduction to Shakespeare. It's a collection of moderately random essays based on something in each play that the author finds interesting.
Some of the chapters are more convincing than others. There's a discussion in the chapter on Comedy of Errors which points out that this play is more prop-heavy than other plays. This then spins off into a discussion about how objects define individuality. And while that's all very interesting, I can't help wondering if a better explanation is that in a play about identical twins and mistaken identities, the props help the audience to work out who is who. Part of the humour is that the audience knows more than the characters.
If this really was a guide on how to read Shakespeare, I would have expected that sort of point to be explained and not the fairly esoteric argument about individuality.
There's nothing much wrong with the book as long as you treat if for what it is. It is a fairly random collection of essays on some elements of some of the plays. It's not an introduction to Shakespeare. It won't show you how to read the plays.
I've given it 3 stars on the GR scale where 2 stars means "It was ok" and four stars means "I really liked it". I did enjoy the book. Emma writes well and clearly knows her stuff. Some of her points resonated.
But that blurb writer really ought to exit pursued by a bear. Because this is a book that doesn't do what it says on the tin.
A fantastically fun and fascinating audiobook. I wouldn’t usually pick up a ‘lit criticism’ kind of book, but I heard Val McDermid rave about it on my favorite BBC radio 4 podcast and couldn’t resist. I love how Oxford prof Emma Smith looks at how much these plays are so open to interpretation, how they ask many more questions than give any answers, and she discusses each play in both the context of the day, and of today’s world. I learnt so much about the clever ambiguities, and about dramaturgy and creative artistic choices. Loved it 💕
This book is based on Smith's popular Oxford lectures on Shakespeare, which are all recorded and available for free (https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/appr...). Having listened to all of them several times and enjoyed them, I hoped this book would be a more fleshed out version of them. But it's the opposite. A watered down version of what she does in the lectures. Go for the lectures instead. They're better. And free.
This was, for me, an engaging (and occasionally daunting) read. My last real exposure to Shakespeare was in college and I've not read or seen any of his plays since then. The author here is an oxford shakespearean lecturer, so quite knowledgeable on the subject, and as well quite readable (for the most part.) There are bits here and there where she introduces a word that she feels is needed for the ongoing discussion - absolutely to her credit she takes the time to bring it in, provide a good definition, and then continues to use it multiple times. To my shame, I typically read quickly and so don't always take the time to go back, reread the definition, and make sure I completely understand the point she is making. So quite fairly, any failure of understanding is mine, not hers.
Dr Smith takes each play as a chapter, introducing a concept or two and discussing it within the context of the play (and including others as needed - but focusing the discussion using the specific play.) I read it all by reading in chapters over time, which worked out quite well for me.
If it's been a while since you've 'done' Shakespeare (and even if not), this is a very good book to read and reintroduce oneself to the bards plays as well as learning a lot about current (updated) Shakespearean literary leanings.
I love Emma Smith’s The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide, so I was nothing short of excited to dive into this new book. In this one, the author shows her critical views on a portion of the playwright’s works. What I loved the most about This is Shakespeare is that Smith clings on the smaller plots for her chapters, for instance: the murder of Cinna, the poet, in Caesar (which is a very short scene in the play); the whole arc with Portia’s caskets in Merchant; Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater with Tempest instead of focusing on the play’s common post-colonialist discussions. Her arguments might not be anything new to people who have been studying the Bard for a while, but as I’m fairly new to the subject, a bunch of it felt very refreshing to me. I learned a lot reading this – it gave me a lot to think about and I got to see most plays through a new lens – and even though it doesn’t cover all of Shakespeare’s plays, it still ended up as one of my favorite books on his career.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for granting me a digital copy in exchange of an honest review!
Based on the book summary I thought this was going to have a more conversational tone, but it’s highly academic, sometimes to the point of being a chore to get through. That being said, Smith made me think about Shakespeare’s work in new and different ways, which is the whole point.
As part of my major, I took a Shakespeare class many years ago, but we focused primarily on the meaning of the text and not necessarily “why” the text existed. My favorite parts of this book are the essays where Smith talks about different factors in Shakespeare’s life that may have influenced him to write the plays the way he did, or the types of messages he may have been trying to convey about the society he lived in.
I would recommend this to folks who love Shakespeare, but it’s not the kind of book I think you sit down and read in a couple days.
i wouldn't go as far to say i now love Shakespeare, there will always be a little of 16 year old Lucy not paying attention and getting sent out of English lessons within me, but i can firmly say that i hate school for what they taught me about his works. they taught me to look for definitive answers in plays that are gappy and full of ambiguity. i searched for rhyming patterns, themes and quotations that fit into the argument i tried to make, i cared about what Shakespeare's intentions were and not what his words made me feel. i learnt to feel stupid when not understanding why he was perceived as an intellectual genius and one of the greatest artists to ever live. this book helped me unlearn all this and i can conclusively say "I don't really care what he might have meant, and nor should you."
"Shakespeare's works ask, rather than answer, questions, making them wonderfully unsuited to the exam system"
pippin doing english homework for fun again; i'm nothing if not predictable 😪
so i've read 14 of the 20 plays covered in this collection––and despite how this book markets itself, i think it's best enjoyed with a not-insubstantial amount of foreknowledge! but, if you've been around the shakespeare block a few times, emma smith takes some really interesting routes of inquiry here that i think will surprise you even if you've been exposed to other scholarship. the subversive sexuality in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the challenge Comedy of Errors presents to the individual self, and the influence of celebrity in Antony and Cleopatra are just a sampling of the topics you'll encounter in this book.
(also up for debate is whether the bear of "exit, pursued by a bear" fame was an Actual Bear On Stage 😳)
I thoroughly enjoyed this study of Shakespeare at his best, his most ambiguous, and most interesting. Covering 20 plays, Smith discusses many questions raised by Shakespeare’s take on well-known stories of the day and the “gaps” in his versions — holes in the plots or places where missing information makes the Bard’s intentions unknowable. Smith is a delightful writer with a fascinating take on her subject. Actually, I think she’s just brilliant. I found myself most interested in the plays I’m more familiar with. I’ve read them all, but too many decades ago to remember characters and details of plot (e.g., Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, etc.).
I just learned from another reviewer that Emma Smith produced a podcast called Approaching Shakespeare. It ended in 2017, but there are 31 episodes available.
I listened to the audiobook and Smith speaks very well. I was, though, often distracted by her odd pronunciations. Even allowing for possible British alternatives, many of them were jarring — e.g., biopic, locus, maelstrom, treatise, chagrin, deus ex machina. . . .