A Big Book Roundup Part 1: Shakespeare Edition

Since I’m too lazy to write long individual reviews of a bunch of books I’ve gone through recently, I thought instead to compile them into a series of short blurbs like I did with some movies earlier. A bunch of these are audio books, since it makes my inevitable two hours daily in my car more worthwhile.

I don’t drive anywhere, I just sit in my car and listen to books. Just doing my part to SAVE THE PLANET.

Anyway – I’m always ready to go back in on the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theory every now and then, and I can recommend a bunch of interesting books in this general area, as well as a couple I threw in there that analyze Shakespeare’s works in interesting ways.

Let’s start with Who Wrote Shakespeare? By John Mitchell, which evidently is sports talk guy Dan Patrick’s favorite book. Mitchell goes through a nice rundown of all the major authorship theories (Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford) as well as some others, and mostly winds up in the Oxford camp. His history of each candidate is readable and interesting, and makes a nice intro for people beginning to look into some of these theories.

If you want a well argued pro-Stratford-man-Shakespeare counterpoint, check out Contested Will by James Shapiro (audiobook), a Columbia prof of English lit who offers a wonderfully detailed history of how the authorship controversies developed, first in the nineteenth century with the Francis Bacon theories, and later with Oxford, Marlowe and others. But what really makes Shapiro’s book worth reading is how well he discusses the world of English theater and the nature of the professional writing life in Elizabethan times, and how a lot of the supposed illogical factoids on Shakespeare himself actually fit in well with how many of his contemporaries worked, published, earned money and the like. Shapiro must reject a lot of the idea that “all writing is autobiography” that drives many of the alternative author theories in order to arrive at his own arguments for Shakespeare himself, and even though I’m a doubter that Shakespeare wrote the material himself, I think Shapiro’s arguments describing the realities of Elizabethan playwright life are very compelling evidence.

Another book pursues a bona-fide mystery in the Shakespeare biography – what happened to his personal library? He must have had a large number of reference books for the material he wrote, especially since so much of it was based on earlier histories or classical plays. No evidence of a Shakespeare library exists anywhere, and he left no books to anyone in his will. Hmmm. So in Stuart Kells’ Shakespeare’s Library, (audiobook) Kells explores the history of the people who went searching for clues as to what happened to all those books, or whose books he may have actually used in his works (a patron? who knows) but this, again, winds up interweaving with the authorship question since the lack of this library casts doubt on Shakespeare as the author himself. Kells mostly writes about associates of his that follow the Henry Neville authorship theory (very well outlined in The Truth Will Out by Brenda James), but always comes back to the idea of hunting down evidence of the books themselves.

I liked Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay (an argument that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathizer, evidence in his work, etc.), so I checked out her later book Shakespeare & The Resistance, (audiobook) where she offers a wonderfully detailed analysis of his early successful poems “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” arguing that both poems are thinly disguised attacks on Henry VIII’s dissolution of church property & Elizabeth’s illegitimate reign over England. Asquith concludes her book with a nice description of the Essex Rebellion, arguing that Shakespeare was a supporter of the attempt to “Richard II” Elizabeth, basically. Not sure if I agree with her, but fascinating stuff.

I also enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare & Politics, (audiobook) where the lit prof author of Will In The World organizes an intersting analysis of many Shakespeare plays (mostly histories and tragedies) by categorizing the types of characters that surround tyrannical figures – bad kings, bad emperors, bad Greco-Roman main characters, etc. The only place I thought it broke down was in his final chapter on “Coriolanus” where the book becomes more along the lines of Greenblatt & Politics rather than Shakespeare. Greenblatt tries repeatedly to compare Coriolanus to Trump and the section sounds like a tangential rant during a college lecture of some tenured prof venting his own politics in front of passive undergrads. The Coriolanus-as-tyrant arguments are certainly sound, but they can be pinned to practically any American or foreign politico of your choice if you cherry pick whatever you don’t like about them. And that ought to be the point, since it was certainly Shakespeare’s. Since it came at the end of the listen, it took something away from the earlier chapters where Greenblatt sticks to the texts themselves and offers a very nice overall analysis of the way political commentary relating to Elizabethan and Jacobean times turns up in Shakespeare’s plays.

For this installment, I’ll throw in a tangentially related book I also listened to, A Hidden History of the Tower of London by John Paul Davis, (audiobook) an exhaustively detailed history of the Tower, its construction and renovations/additions, and every. single. major. execution. EVER! inside its walls. After a while, I wondered how there could be any Brit nobility left since all they did was kill each other, chopping heads off and good ol’ drawing and quartering. I guess that’s what happens when you have to wait hundreds of years for Jamie Oliver to come along and teach you how to cook.

Next up – books in other categories.

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