Shakespeare: For All Time

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Oxford University Press, 2003 - Biography & Autobiography - 442 pages
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From the entry of Shakespeare's birth in the Stratford church register to a Norwegian production of Macbeth in which the hero was represented by a tomato, this enthralling and splendidly illustrated book tells the story of Shakespeare's life, his writings, and his afterlife.
Drawing on a lifetime's experience of studying, teaching, editing, and writing about Shakespeare, Stanley Wells combines scholarly authority with authorial flair in a book that will appeal equally to the specialist and the untutored enthusiast. Chapters on Shakespeare's life in Stratford and in London offer a fresh view of the development of the writer's career and personality. At the core of the book lies a magisterial study of the writings themselves--how Shakespeare set about writing a play, his relationships with the company of actors with whom he worked, his developing mastery of the literary and rhetorical skills that he learned at the Stratford grammar school, the essentially theatrical quality of the structure and language of his plays. Subsequent chapters trace the fluctuating fortunes of his reputation and influence. Here are accounts of adaptations, productions, and individual performances in England and, increasingly, overseas; of great occasions such as the Garrick Jubilee and the tercentenary celebrations of 1864; of the spread of Shakespeare's reputation in France and Germany, Russia and America, and, more recently, the Far East; of Shakespearian discoveries and forgeries; of critical reactions, favorable and otherwise, and of scholarly activity; of paintings, music, films and other works of art inspired by the plays; of the plays' use in education and the political arena, and of the pleasure and intellectual stimulus that they have given to an increasingly international public.
Shakespeare, said Ben Jonson, was not of an age but for all time. This is a book about him for our time.

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Shakespeare: For All Time

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Shakespeare scholar Wells creates sketches of the playwright's life by examining artifacts and documents. Chapters study the growth of his reputation from that of a popular London playwright to the ... Read full review

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A book on Shakespeare, it is said, is published every day somewhere in the world. Why add to that pile unless you have something new to say - or claim, with Anthony Burgess, 'the right of every Shakespeare-lover to paint his own portrait of the man'? Stanley Wells, whose 'Also By' page lists some 25 previous cases to be taken into account, fails the first test, and has already passed the second. So what, for all a lifetime steeped in Shakespeare, can he possibly have left to tell us?
Wells is emeritus professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham, co-editor of the Oxford Complete Works and general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series. He is also chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and vice-chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company. So he is a sizeable stakeholder in the Stratford 'heritage' industry as well as the recent Oxford approach to the canon, often controversial under his leadership. Towards the end of a Shakespeare-saturated career, it seems, he wants to pull it all together one last time, adding the very latest developments (such as a Norwegian production of Macbeth in which the protagonist is played by a tomato) in a tone of voice that sounds as if he is reminiscing with his grandchildren.
Although frequently referring to himself as a 'scholar', apparently to distance himself from those who jump to bolder Bardic conclusions, Wells writes almost chattily, enlivening his opening remarks with the far from scholarly observation that 'a young friend of mine was reduced to tears at the thought that [Shakespeare] died on his birthday'. After seeing Olivier's Coriolanus he 'walked the streets of Stratford alone, unwilling to break the spell by anything so mundane as conversation'. The great S Schoenbaum is referred to as 'Sam'; of the equally eminent John Dover Wilson we are told that his wife would lock him in his study to work, but he would sneak out of the window to play golf.
All of which is fine, often entertaining, so long as the claims made for it are not as ambitious as those on Macmillan's dustjacket. Wells is a scholar who is prim with the available facts (or lack of them) one minute, rebuking those who 'privilege common sense over evidence', yet himself swashbuckling the next - surmising, for instance, that Shakespeare 'might surely have had fascinating conversations' with an alderman who worshipped at the same London church.
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The opening biographical section, divided between Stratford and London, is cautious to the extreme in its handling of fact versus accumulated 'fiction' (or speculation) while emphatic about the author's own pet surmises, such as his maverick belief that Two Gentlemen of Verona was Shakespeare's first play.
While citing cutting-edge evidence about the true location of Mary Arden's home, he ignores other documentation about the poet's purchase late in life of the gatehouse of the Blackfriars Theatre, blandly stating that he 'seems' never to have lived there - thus sidestepping recent refutations of the received wisdom that Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1611 after penning his farewell in The Tempest. Like too many other Shakespeareans of all eras, Wells also uses the Sonnets as autobiographical evidence when it suits him, condemning the practice when it doesn't.
Despite his declared interest in the Stratford tourist industry, he is remarkably gallant about the newly fashionable 'Lancashire Shakespeare' - the theory, 'intriguing' to Wells, who spells it out in even-handed detail, that the notoriously 'missing' or 'lost' years between the end of the teenage Will's schooldays and his impregnation of Anne Hathaway were spent up north as a tutor-turned-actor in a noble Catholic household.
You would not expect the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, however, to question whether his man was actually


Shakespeare and Stratford
Shakespeare in London
Shakespeare the Writer
The Growth of the Legend 16231744
The Age of Garrick Shakespeare Celebrated 17411789
Regency and Romanticism 17891843
Victorian Shakespeare 18431904
From Victoria to Elizabeth 19031952
Shakespeare Worldwide

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About the author (2003)

Stanley Wells is Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. The Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Vice-Chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, he is the General Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series and the Oxford Complete Works. A world-renowned authority, he regularly appears on TV, radio, and in the press whenever Shakespeare is discussed.

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