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Michael Dobson: Deutschland ist Hamlet

6 August 2009
... In which country has Hamlet mattered most, politically, over the last couple of centuries? Despite a succession of celebrity stage productions, the answer probably isn’t Shakespeare’s sometime homeland. Modern British nationalism has certainly found the cult of Shakespeare as the indigenous voice of Warwickshire quite useful from time to time, whether the task at hand has been claiming legitimacy for imperialism or just trying to boost the tourist industry, but such feeling is nowadays more closely associated with outdoor productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than with Hamlet ...

Diary

Michael Dobson: The Russell-Cotes

23 February 2012
... What is the difference between great art and tat? In the theatre, Dr Johnson’s rule of thumb seems adequate: if people are still prepared to revive a play a century after its premiere, it probably matters, whether or not they call it ‘dramatic art’. But it’s trickier with paintings, which have a relationship to the word ‘art’ that baffled me for years ...

Fault-Finders

Michael Dobson

18 November 1993
‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare’s Art 
by R.A. Foakes.
Cambridge, 262 pp., £30, March 1993, 0 521 34292 9
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Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels 
by Brian Vickers.
Yale, 508 pp., £35, April 1993, 0 300 05415 7
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Shakespeare, Poet and Citizen 
by Victor Kieran.
Verso, 261 pp., £18.95, March 1993, 0 86091 392 9
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... It were a delicate stratagem,’ muses King Lear at one point during his great mad scene:                             to shoe A troop of horse with felt: I’ll put’t in proof; And when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law. Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill! R.A. Foakes and Brian Vickers, both approaching retirement after reigning for nearly thirty years in the upper reaches of Shakespeare studies, aren’t feeling entirely charitable towards their heirs either, although on the evidence of their new reflections on the state of that divided kingdom, Foakes is rather less malicious than his Shakespearean avatar, and Vickers rather less stealthy ...

Ovid goes to Stratford

Michael Dobson: Shakespeare Myths

5 December 2013
Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare 
by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith.
Wiley-Blackwell, 216 pp., £14.99, December 2012, 978 0 470 65851 2
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... Perhaps it was inevitable that Shakespeare’s talent should have been understood in mythological terms from the outset. Even before he published Venus and Adonis (1593) his early plays had revealed an imagination profoundly shaped by Ovid’s tales of the interaction between gods and mortals, and, despite the growing prevalence among his audiences of a neoclassical taste for satirical urban realism, throughout his career he scripted scenes in which Hymen personally ratifies the ending of a comedy, or Hercules abandons Antony, or Jupiter descends on an eagle ...

Only Sleeping

Anne Barton: Variations on Elizabeth I

10 July 2003
England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy 
by Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson.
Oxford, 348 pp., £19.99, November 2002, 0 19 818377 1
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... was its longevity: the way she continues four hundred years after her death to conduct, as Michael Dobson and Nicola Watson put it in this engaging book, ‘a posthumous progress through the collective psyche of her country’. Historians, beginning with John Foxe and William Camden in her own time, and extending across the centuries to Patrick ...

And That Rug!

Michael Dobson: Images of Shakespeare

6 November 2003
Shakespeare’s Face: The Story behind the Newly Discovered Portrait 
by Stephanie Nolen.
Piatkus, 365 pp., £18.99, March 2003, 0 7499 2391 1
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Imagining Shakespeare: A History of Texts and Visions 
by Stephen Orgel.
Palgrave, 172 pp., £25, August 2003, 1 4039 1177 0
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Shakespeare in Art 
by Jane Martineau et al.
Merrell, 256 pp., £29.95, September 2003, 1 85894 229 2
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In Search of Shakespeare 
by Michael Wood.
BBC, 352 pp., £20, May 2003, 9780563534778
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... in a more aristocratic and accomplished manner, complete with emblematic fruit, by John Michael Wright’s c.1668 painting of James Cecil, fourth Earl of Salisbury and his sister Lady Catherine, now at Hatfield. Unhelpfully, there is no indication on the canvas as to the pear-bearing girl’s identity, and no date either. However, a modern brass ...

A Furtive Night’s Work

Michael Dobson: Shakespeare’s working habits

20 October 2005
1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 
by James Shapiro.
Faber, 429 pp., £16.99, June 2005, 0 571 21480 0
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... find. The Shakespeare of 1599 is a less tormented or dashing figure than the apostate recusant of Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare (2003) or Richard Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare (2004), and in Shapiro’s cautious and sober account of his contributions to The Passionate Pilgrim and their revised reappearance in the 1609 Sonnets he isn’t the ...

Cold Front in Arden

Michael Dobson

31 October 1996
Reading Shakespeare Historically 
by Lisa Jardine.
Routledge, 207 pp., £40, April 1996, 0 415 13490 0
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Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre 
by Louis Montrose.
Chicago, 228 pp., £39.95, May 1996, 0 226 53482 0
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Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context 
by Patricia Parker.
Chicago, 392 pp., £41.50, April 1996, 0 226 64584 3
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Impersonations: Gender and Performance in Shakespear’s England 
by Stephen Orgel.
Cambridge, 179 pp., £30, February 1996, 0 521 56842 0
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... Does anyone still think Shakespeare’s comedies provide happy endings for their heroines? Come to that, does anyone still think Shakespeare’s comedies have either ‘happy endings’ or ‘heroines’? There certainly wasn’t much in the way of feminocentric festive renewal going on in Stratford this summer: Steven Pimlott’s unusually bleak As You Like It – which appeared to be set at midwinter in the hold of a container ship – gave the impression that the RSC has forgotten why marriage to either Orlando or Rosalind ever looked interesting, let alone a cause for rejoicing ...

Shee Spy

Michael Dobson

8 May 1997
The Secret Life of Aphra Behn 
by Janet Todd.
Deutsch, 545 pp., £25, October 1996, 0 233 98991 9
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... Twenty years ago, when Maureen Duffy first published The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89, Behn was still known principally as the celebrated but largely unread founder of women’s writing, the figure who had been hymned but effectively dismissed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929). ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,’ Woolf wrote, only to declare Behn’s actual writings to be so much cheerful hack-work, of interest only as the hack-work of a woman ...
13 November 1997
The Origins of English Nonsense 
by Noel Malcolm.
HarperCollins, 329 pp., £18, May 1997, 0 00 255827 0
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... How far could, or even should, a history of nonsense make sense? This is one of the questions raised by Noel Malcolm’s study of English nonsense verse – a book which is itself, appropriately, an apparent sport in a career otherwise devoted to Hobbes’s letters and the geopolitics of the Balkans. Perhaps only an author raised on Leviathan and hardened by the experience of publishing something as contentious as Bosnia: A Short History would have the nerve to attempt the task of trying to write cogently about the battiest literary treasures of the English Renaissance ...

Dwarf-Basher

Michael Dobson

8 June 1995
Edmond Malone, Shakespearean Scholar: A Literary Biography 
by Peter Martin.
Cambridge, 298 pp., £40, April 1995, 0 521 46030 1
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... Anyone who has ever taken the slightest interest in Shakespeare and his times owes a great deal to Edmond Malone. It was Malone who in a single month, June 1789, discovered not only the papers of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, on which most of our knowledge of the working practices of the Elizabethan theatre is based, but the records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels from 1622 to 1642, a complementary treasure-trove on Jacobean and Caroline court entertainments and dramatic censorship; Malone who first trawled systematically through the parish and corporation records of Stratford for the surviving documentary traces of Shakespeare’s family, and in the process found the only extant item of his personal correspondence, a letter to him from his neighbour Richard Quiney; Malone who found what remains the only known copy of the 1594 first quarto of Venus and Adonis (and later bequeathed it, along with most of his remarkable library, to the Bodleian); Malone whose path-breaking edition of 1790, with its insistence on the paramount authority of the early quartos and the First Folio, was the first to include reliable biographical information about Shakespeare, a chronology of the plays and a properly-edited text of the Sonnets ...

Father-Daughter Problems

Michael Dobson: Shakespeare’s Bad Daughters

8 May 2008
The Lodger: Shakespeare in Silver Street 
by Charles Nicholl.
Allen Lane, 378 pp., £20, November 2007, 978 0 7139 9890 0
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... What with all those Henrys being succeeded by all those other Henrys in the histories, and all those worryingly ghostly patriarchs looming over the tragedies – Julius Caesar, Old Hamlet, Banquo – you never get very far from paternity in the Shakespeare canon. Nor is fatherhood presented solely as a matter between father and son, in the manner highlighted to the point of overdetermination in the battle scene near York in Act II of Henry VI Part 2, when the stage is simultaneously occupied by a nameless father bearing the corpse of the son he has just killed, and a nameless son bearing the corpse of the father he has just killed, both of them watched by a king who, having inherited the crown from his never-to-be-equalled father, has now disinherited his own son, thereby occasioning the battle ...

Gobsmacked

Michael Dobson: Shakespeare

16 July 1998
Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry 
by James Biester.
Cornell, 226 pp., £31.50, May 1997, 0 8014 3313 4
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Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvellous 
by Peter Platt.
Nebraska, 271 pp., £42.75, January 1998, 0 8032 3714 6
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Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder 
by T.G. Bishop.
Cambridge, 222 pp., £32.50, January 1996, 0 521 55086 6
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The Genius of Shakespeare 
by Jonathan Bate.
Picador, 386 pp., £20, September 1997, 0 330 35317 9
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... Harold Bloom on the influence of Marlowe, Peter Conrad on Shakespeare and Romantic opera, Michael Bristol on the ‘culture wars’) without thinking very hard about either their implications or their compatibility. (It’s manifestly counter-productive, for example, to conclude an engagingly fervent book about the unique irreplaceability of ...
10 May 2007
William Shakespeare, Complete Works: The RSC Shakespeare 
edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.
Macmillan, 2486 pp., £30, April 2007, 978 0 230 00350 7
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... performances for the texts it presents. Although its introductory materials include a foreword by Michael Boyd and a splendid collection of photographs showing RSC players in a range of contrasting productions (from Peter Brook’s 1962 King Lear to Gregory Doran’s 2006 Antony and Cleopatra), there is no suggestion that the RSC has ever performed ...

Hoarder of Malt

Michael Dobson: Shakespeare

7 January 1999
Shakespeare: A Life 
by Park Honan.
Oxford, 479 pp., £25, October 1998, 0 19 811792 2
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Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’ 
by E.A.J. Honigmann.
Manchester, 172 pp., £11.99, December 1998, 0 7190 5425 7
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... Every year, on a Saturday morning in April, the miscellaneous participants in the most improbably charming event in the official national calendar gather for a cup of tea in the Georgian town hall of a small market town in the West Midlands. There is a great deal of scarlet in evidence, in the robes of the assembled Council and of sundry invited academics, white in the vestments of the local clergy, and a respectable quantity of gold in the mayoral chains of office; there are any number of sombre grey suits on visiting diplomats and corporate sponsors; and outside the sunshine, if there is any, glints from the brass instruments and buttons of a military band ...

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