The author sets out to answer key questions, such as: how does Shakespeare both speak to us and offer consolation, and what is the key to his seeming modernity and his ‘enduring sympathy’? His method is to range through the plays and the life, to look at the influence of Shakespeare over centuries and in different parts of the world and to touch on ways the crises of the writer’s own time might be mirrored in our own. He discusses performances and how the works connected with audiences in different times. It makes for an ambitious and exhilarating ride.
We live, as Shakespeare did, in unprecedented times. Troubling, yes. Yet thrilling too. McCrum revisits a scene from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Prater Violet in which the producer Dr Bergmann claims that the “film studio of today is really the palace of the 16th century. There one sees what Shakespeare saw”: “. . . the absolute power of the tyrant, the courtiers, the flatterers, the jesters, the cunningly ambitious intriguers . . . There is enormous splendour, which is a sham; there is also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery. There are vast schemes, abandoned because of some caprice. There are secrets which everybody knows and no one speaks of.” To which the Isherwood character replies: “You make it sound great fun.”