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.
We all have an image in our mind’s eye of Shakespearean performance during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but what happened between then and now? Why didn’t the Restoration court like Shakespeare? Who is David Garrick? For answers to all these questions and more, seek no further.
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.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not a play many people have read. Though were they to read it, they might think they have, because it reads like an anthology of Shakespeare in the 1590s. Sheldrake takes the opportunity to hold the mirror up to comedy by reading in parallel with Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It, along the way outlining some rules of the Shakespearean world.
In a resumption of normal service that is perhaps not quite the triumphant return he would like, Sheldrake confesses himself drawn more to the ideas of Measure for Measure than its drama. The discussions of Virtue and Justice in the play are strikingly front and centre, and the social aspects of these philosophical ideas form the matter of this episode. Dodging the comedy/dark comedy/tragicomedy/problem play debate, Sheldrake gives you Measure for Measure; a play about the nature of society.
Testing the patience of listeners once again by talking about someone who isn’t Shakespeare, Sheldrake investigates the peculiar career of John Marston; satirist, dramatist, tragicomedian. He had some great successes, then there was a bit of a lean patch, then he appears to have thrown in the towel. Why? In one word – tragicomedy.
As social politics continue to change with gathering speed, works of literature have to catch up or fall by the wayside. The plays of Shakespeare, written in a very different age from our own, must be scrutinised. Does this play, a notorious battle of the sexes, pass the test? Sheldrake thinks so.
Richard II has grown in fame in recent years, but is hounded by the fact that the central character is brilliant whilst the rest of the play is the usual run-of-the-mill History drama. But is it that simple? By paying closer attention, can we see that the true genius of this play is in its combination of genres in order to understand history? Sheldrake thinks so.
Form is almost absent from the modern critical radar, which has put Love’s Labour’s Lost on the back burner. In a courageous rear-guard action, Sheldrake tries to demonstrate the formal beauty of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and explains why that formal beauty matters.