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Michael Alexander: Reading Shakespeare (Palgrave Macmillan)

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It's said that all the known facts about Shakespeare can be written on a single sheet of A4. There are 37 plays in the canon, counting Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three as separate works. In modern terminology, they divide into 12 tragedies, 10 histories and 16 comedies. Early 20th-century criticism preferred to consider one of the blacker comedies (Measure For Measure) and one of the more farcical of the tragedies (Troilus And Cressida) as "problem plays". Seven of the plays are thought to incorporate work by other hands. There are a couple of lost plays, Love's Labours Won and Cardenio, perhaps co-written with John Fletcher. And there is a body of poetry, of which only the sonnets and their "mysterious" personal subtexts are palatable today. Shakespeare was baptised in 1564 and died in 1616. We owe his literary survival to the decision by two colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, to publish the "complete works" in a handsome folio. And yet, it is also said that a book about Shakespeare, this man of whom we know so very little, is published in one of the world's languages every single day.

How can one more book advance knowledge? What new perspective could possibly be found in just 175 pages? At the heart of 20th-century literary criticism there was a tidal bore (sometimes in both senses) of revisionist accounts: Shakespeare "our contemporary"; Shakespeare as a figure so remote as to be incomprehensible without enormous contextual apparatus; Shakespeare as Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or Melville; Shakespeare the Catholic; Shakespeare the homosexual or – why not? – a woman; Shakespeare as not very good after all; perspectives that are Marxist, Freudian, feminist, deconstructionist, feminist-deconstructionist. The list of methodologies starts to sound like Polonius's flier for the Players in Hamlet.

The key to Michael Alexander's new guide is in the title. This is a book about, and a defence of, reading Shakespeare. "The fundamental premise of this book ... is that a single reader counts fully as an audience." Alexander, who was once cast as Bottom and clearly has a deep affection for the part and the play, is convinced that more damage has been done to Shakespeare by bad directorial decisions than by over-interpretation on the part of his fellow academics. And he is right. I have personally suffered a 19-year-old Lear and a production of Macbeth on stilts, and once perpetrated a student production of Hamlet in which the Danish court was a motorcycle gang, a device that only really made sense when Yorick's crash helmet was dug up.

Alexander sets out both the acting and the publishing conventions of the age and shows how Shakespeare's texts have come down to us via editors, a point often overlooked. He works as chronologically as supposition about the order of composition allows, and selects certain plays for more detailed consideration, but with sharp cross-reference at every stage. His account of Othello is the best short analysis you'll read, or need, but there's a valuable perception on every page, like the importance of bird imagery in Macbeth.

So why read this when, like a number 12 bus, there will be another one along in a minute? Why not read Frank Kermode's also attractively brief The Age Of Shakespeare from 2004 instead? The simple answer is that whereas Kermode delivers a vivid diorama, Alexander makes his reader – who is as likely to be a student as not – think about the relation of character and role, about what is "problematic" in a problem play or "historical" in a history, and about the different cadences of comedy and tragedy even within a single drama. Reading Shakespeare may be most explicitly aimed at a campus market, but it is not a ready crib and is more likely to be appreciated by a passionate reader of the plays for whom familiarity has led to inattention but who is, as this wise commentator makes clear, a quite sufficient audience.

Reading Shakespeare

Michael Alexander

Palgrave Macmillan, £11.99

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