This Is Shakespeare is a predictable reading of the plays, of exactly the kind you would expect from a woke 21st-century academic. The later 17th and 18th centuries thought Shakespeare a writer of sweet love stories, but some rather tasteless tragedies, which could be improved upon by a thorough rewrite. The 19th century found him an immense inspiration for its patriotic pride and budding nationalism. Marxist critics found him Marxist. Today, Smith finds Shakespeare to be full of thrilling stuff about “intersectionality”, she detects “fat-shaming” in the portrait of Falstaff and “institutional racism” in Othello. The jargon mingles with a chatty style, telling us that Shakespeare covers “a tonne of topics”, and giving this for a summary of King Lear: “In ancient Britain, life’s a bitch (not to mention your daughters), and then you die.” This is not to say the book is worthless. She has some neat turns of phrase, and some sharp insights... Smith acknowledges the risk of confirmation bias creeping into anyone’s reading of Shakespeare, yet despite this, too much of the book reads like just that. This Is Shakespeare is comfortably of its time, a safe, easy-to-read introduction to the plays for the 21st-century student.
As Smith points out, with admirable directness, “Lots of what we trot out about Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and the divine right of kings and ‘Merrie England’ and his enormous vocabulary blah blah blah are just not true, and just not important.” The half-remembered factoids and misconceptions about genius, timeless values and human nature that weigh Shakespeare down tend to obscure rather than illuminate what makes him still worth reading or watching. Look properly, however, and it becomes much easier to see the ways in which, as Smith puts it, his works remain “spacious texts to think with”, about our own time and about his.... While specialists will find familiar themes here, there is a huge amount to chew on and enjoy. Very few chapters go by without a moment of illumination – or, to borrow Keats’s phrase, a “dovetailing” of things. For non-specialists, I would struggle to think of a better way in.
These questions are brilliantly illuminating and serve both as introductions to the plays for those in need of a refresher and prompts for deeper thought for those more familiar with the work. There’s a huge amount of other criticism here, both historical and contemporary, but This Is Shakespeare is far more than merely synoptic. Smith’s own close reading of Shakespeare’s plays is dazzling, her original research – on doubling, on the crossing of generic boundaries, on male friendship – totally convincing. What This Is Shakespeare gives the reader most of all, though, is a licence to enjoy the plays without the cultural and historical baggage they so often carry. Smith is, above all else, great fun, and it’s impossible not to get carried along on the tide of her enthusiasm. This Is Shakespeare is the best introduction to the plays I’ve read, perhaps the best book on Shakespeare, full stop.
Smith’s outstanding book offers us ‘a Shakespeare you could have a drink and a good conversation with’... As Smith sees it, Shakespearean biography is over – she kills it off in a parenthetical injunction that ‘there’s nothing more to say about the facts of Shakespeare’s own life’. The mastery of Smith’s writing is familiar from her other work. Here she exults in Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance: her Shakespeare ‘knows about intersectionality as much as about Ovid’. She revisits plays from unexpected angles, so that they will seem new to both the experienced theatregoer and the baffled student... In her epilogue, Smith notes the other directions she might have taken: Shakespeare’s collaborations, performance histories or history itself. Perhaps This Is Also Shakespeare will follow.
Smith’s book is not a didactic attempt to tell the reader what Shakespeare is “really” about. On the contrary, her case is that Shakespeare depends on his audience. It is our response that makes his works complete... The bulk of the book is a consideration, play by play, of 20 of Shakespeare’s works. Each of these chapters, of fewer than 20 pages, is packed with acute observations on the play and its critical interpretation in earlier ages. She makes clear how Shakespeare’s concerns, apparently remote from our time, frequently illuminate it... I like this book very much. Instead of seeking to answer the unanswerable question (a notorious literary pitfall known as “the intentional fallacy”) of what Shakespeare meant, it explains accessibly, and with learning lightly worn, why Shakespeare retains such a hold in our culture... Smith has done an exemplary job of restoring the greatest of English writers to his own time, and explaining why he then speaks to ours.