It’s difficult to know what, and particularly who, to talk about in Othello. Iago is a distraction, Othello likes to inflate his own sense of himself, whilst Desdemona can seem even less than she is. Which is odd, because the characters too find themselves not quite knowing how to interpret what they see in front of them. Or they misunderstand completely and interpret too easily. Their perspective is awry. And because Shakespeare wants to show us just how easy it is to do that, he makes audience after audience lose their perspective too.
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.
King Lear is a work of obvious genius, so what to say about it in fifteen minutes that can illuminate it? Using the historical idea of service, and the relationship between service and – believe it or not – love, we can get a handle on all sorts of relationships in the play. And Sheldrake thinks these handles can help us whether we are in a classroom, sitting room or rehearsal.
In a new Book Review format designed to highlight a few critical classics to add to the shelves, Sheldrake outlines the relative merits of Professor Jonathan Bate’s acclaimed 1997 book The Genius of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare nicked stuff from everywhere; prose narratives, history books, other plays. Sheldrake rattles through a few of the old chestnuts and a few of the lesser-known borrowings, showing Shakespeare as a great adapter of stories.
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.
The soliloquy is one of Shakespeare’s most recognisable and distinctive theatrical devices. It is in no small part responsible for his fame as a dramatist of human psychology. Was Julius Caesar the gateway in Shakespeare’s soliloquising art between the 1590s and the 1600s? Sheldrake takes a close look at a few speeches from the play.
For many years, Globe Education has been staging performances with scripts of the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a series called Read Not Dead. They have worked their way through over 200 plays, but the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse means they now have a permanent and splendid home. To decide which play should be the jewel in the crown of the current season, they held a husting featuring four plays backed by four teams. Sheldrake was there.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets are things you nearly always read alone. But there is a rich seam of drama and conversation to be mined from them, as Sheldrake found recently when he saw them read aloud at the Royal Festival Hall.
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.
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.
The scarcity of scenery on Shakespeare’s stage does not mean that there were no impressive visual effects. One way of awing an audience was with fine costume. As a primer to the full Henry VIII episode next week, Sheldrake describes the impact of costume in two scenes from that play.
We are so used to some of Shakespeare’s plays that it can be very difficult to see their shape with clear eyes. Fusing historical context with an analysis of dramatic structure, Sheldrake takes Macbeth apart and puts it back together again, arguing that Shakespeare’s structural courage is what makes this play so electrifying.
As You Like It is liked by audiences, disliked by academics. What then does this tell us about how crucial performance is to the success of the text? Consequently, Sheldrake argues, engaging with the performance of this play and others should be not only a pleasure for the serious Shakespearean, but also a duty.
Titus Andronicus is rarely read, seen, or heard, but it does not deserve this lack of reputation. Not only does it have much to recommend it artistically, it is also crucial to an understanding of Shakespeare’s development as a writer.