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Oxford Professors Bust 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare

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In a recent book by Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford professors Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith attempt to bust 30 myths about Shakespeare that have taken shape and credo over time. As stated in the Introduction, they do not aim to give a "yes" or "no" answer but rather engage in exploring the causes, nature and impact of the myths.

The authors discuss some really burning issues like the autobiographical reading of the Sonnets, the anti-Stratfordian implications that follow the statement that Shakespeare never travelled, Shakespeare's religion, the association of Hamlet with Shakespeare's son Hamnet, the speculations of a modern Shakespeare writing for Hollywood. Every myth is as comprehensive as open-ended and in conclusion gives food for thought in form of rhetorical questions or reflective statements.

In the discussion of the myth that we do not know much about Shakespeare's life, Maguire and Smith nicely draw a parallel between Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This myth has long been toned down by evidence that we do know more about Shakespeare than other Elizabethan playwrights (see David and Ben Crystal's The Shakespeare Miscellany). Maguire and Smith are very convincing in pointing out that people keep on reiterating this myth because whatever we know about Shakespeare does not tell us anything about his personality. For example, we know less about Marlowe but enough to make up our minds about his rowdy, quarrelsome, distempered nature.

The impenetrability of Shakespeare's personality leads us to think of him as a quiet man who liked to observe in silence. But it has also led many to desperately read autobiography in his works and identify him with his creations - Prospero, most famously.

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The book speculates on Shakespeare's interest in having his plays published, the nature of collaboration at different stages in his career, his ties with Stratford-upon-Avon and him as the Bard of Avon, his bequest to his wife and what their marriage would have been like. The essay on Shakespeare as a plagiarist is a brilliantly convincing overview of the historical and modern understanding of copyright, copying, imitating and plagiarising as well as creatively exploiting - this last, indeed, is what Shakespeare was doing.

The authors also discuss the Macbeth jinx in theatre and how a late 19th century hoax claiming Shakespeare once had to take over the role of Lady Macbeth when the boy player died, generated a superstition around the "Scottish play" that is continuing to be popularly and self-consciously observed.

Whilst most of the myths discussed in the book are really topical, some of them can hardly be termed as myths. "Yorick's skull was real" refers more to the skull used by David Tennant's Hamlet than what Richard Burbage used in his day. Likewise, "Boy actors played women's roles" is neither a myth nor news. The actresses quoted - Janet Suzman and Harriet Walter, merely express amazement at the knowledge that boy actors could portray such complex female parts like Cleopatra. No real controversy here for these topics to be treated as myths.

Instead, the myth of a Shakespeare writing for soap operas today and the misled belief in the difficulty of Shakespeare's language are surprisingly absent from the book - the latter more prominently so. The authors discuss the hugeness of Shakespeare's vocabulary, cite the expert on Shakespeare's language, David Crystal, as well as in a separate entry expand on Shakespeare's use of blank verse echoing the natural English rhythm. But the supposed difficulty of Shakespeare's language which is misconceived by many natives and non-natives alike, remains disappointingly unexamined.

The last myth on the authorship question is as fine and comprehensive an essay as could fit in 2500 words to explain how very impossible it is that anyone but Shakespeare wrote his works. The valid arguments here are drawn from other topics discussed in the book, like Shakespeare's education, travel, timelessness, life and lifetime popularity.

This is a good book by trustworthy Shakespeareans. Not especially reader-friendly in style but quite comprehensive, well-grounded, objective and informed. The individual myths, structured into moderate-length essays (thus you do not have to read them in order), can be excellent for discussions in the classroom or lecture-room. Though the book obviously targets readership already into Shakespeare, every novice will enjoy finding satisfactory answers to the myths they are bothered with.

The book is available to obtain from Wiley-Blackwell as well as other stores.