Ben Jonson. Rival or friend of Shakespeare? Grumpy old bore or stout moralist? In a typical cop-out, Sheldrake thinks both caricatures are true. Jonson is an awkward playwright at the best of times, but his plays are well worth the seeing. Sheldrake gives you his personal top three.
We seem to spend much of our lives asking whether things are worth it. Are they worth the money, the time, the effort? Are we getting value for money? Is something worth it? And everybody in The Merchant of Venice seems to be asking that kind of question too. Venice itself seems to be all about cost and Belmont seems to be all about value. But is it that simple?
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be leading a seminar at RADA on Measure for Measure. In preparing for that seminar I found myself disagreeing with much of what I said in my own podcast episode on the play. So here I rebut and refute many of my earlier claims. One of the great pleasures of working on Shakespeare is that one’s opinions are seldom allowed to stand still.
Twelfth Night seems to be everyone’s favourite Shakespeare play. Why is this the case? Could it be something to do with the fact that it is a play about playing? This play is a hymn to the pleasure and virtue of playing and play wins over anti-play, though of course the real motto is that it’s the taking part that counts.
Sir John Falstaff is a river who has burst his banks. He has taken on a life beyond Shakespeare’s plays and become a myth in his own right. Anybody who has a thirst for life is described as Falstaffian, he has had operas written for him, actors at the mature height of their comic powers have repeatedly enjoyed success as this embodiment of festivity and he remains an unassailable favourite with audiences. Is he just very entertaining, or is there more to it than that?
The BBC has had its ups and downs with Shakespeare. One insufficiently well-known up was its series of Shakespeare adaptations broadcast in 2005. In this episode, Sheldrake reviews the set of four ninety-minute adaptations featuring such actors as James McAvoy, Billie Piper, Damian Lewis, Keeley Hawes, Rufus Sewell, Imelda Staunton and Jonny Vegas that would coincidentally make a great Christmas present for the Shakespeare enthusiast.
This is not the first time genre has been used as a critical tool for understanding Shakespeare’s process and plays, but Sheldrake – never one to dismiss an idea merely because it has been heard before – draws together some big ideas about comedy and tragedy and shows the way that Shakespeare messes about with them.