Goodreads: Bard of Avon
Review: The title of Stanley and Vennema’s work seems a little misleading. Since historians know so little about Shakespeare himself, the authors necessarily talk a lot more about the playwright’s world—the theatres, the system of patronage, the political atmosphere—than about the playwright. In doing so, they provide an informative overview of the theatre in Renaissance England made lively by the inclusion of detailed pictures. Unfortunately, however, Shakespeare remains a contentious topic, and the authors choose sides in debates without ever recognizing that debates exist. Presumably they wished to simplify the topic for young readers, but this approach necessarily raises questions about what young readers should be exposed to and when. Shakespeare gains much of his beauty from his complexity, and it seems to me a disservice to pretend that he and his works generate no dissent among scholars and critics.
Length constraints undoubtedly played a role in forcing the authors to skim over some of the controversies surrounding Shakespeare. Scholars, for example, argue about such matters as whether Shakespeare ever revised his plays and whether he wrote for the stage or for the page, but Stanley and Vennema simply explain that the playwright wrote for his actors and never reworked his lines. They also make assumptions about Shakespeare’s life, deducing from the scanty historical record that Shakespeare must have had an unhappy marriage and proposing that during his “lost years” he worked in his father’s business (though they do mention other suggested occupations).
Perhaps my greatest problem with the book lies in the attempt to explain the trajectory of Shakespeare’s work by linking groups of plays to his supposed emotions when writing them. The authors are not alone in trying to match the tragedies to an unhappy period in Shakespeare’s life and the comedies to a happy one, but such speculation never seemed particularly scholarly to me; an author does need to feel depressed in order to write a sad play. Such an assertion undermines Shakespeare’s artistic talent and limits his artistic vision.
A quiet literary judgment about Shakespeare’s work also seems to have been made in this biography. For many years, Shakespeare’s last plays (known under various names such as the comitragedies or the romances) were not highly regarded by critics. Perhaps the works consulted by Stanley and Vennema did not give the romances much attention as a result, for the authors here relegate them to a single line—in which they merely note that these last plays show a love of the countryside.
I recognize the merit of Stanley and Vennema’s work in light o f the need to make a difficult subject accessible to younger readers. The authors even provide a handy bibliography so young researchers can learn more about Shakespeare and the debates he has inspired. If I had children, I would probably even buy this book for them. Because I approached the book with my own ideas of what Shakespeare is, what he means, and how he should be treated, however, I found myself, when reading, sidetracked by questions of how I might have written a similar work. Is it possible to include all the questions surrounding Shakespeare? Is it even desirable? Maybe Shakespeare is a subject like chemistry where the first things students learn are often not true—but they have to be taught that way as a foundation for later learning.