When Dominic Dromgoole, the new artistic director of the Globe, was working at the Bush theatre, he observed a crowd of intense theatrical types milling about the pub below the venue. They were talking in deeply academic terms about the production they'd just seen, when one of the drug-addled pub habitus began darting among them, offering "nonsensical phrases of agreement". But the real peculiarity lay in the blown-up condom which the addict had tugged over his head like a cap. For all the angst and wonder, magic, mysticism and fierce political awareness Dromgoole identifies in Shakespeare, this remains for me the central image of the book.
For Dromgoole, Shakespeare is the great high priest of the inconsistent, the anarchic, the life-loving. His book is not an autobiography, nor even really a memoir. Rather it is the living chronicle of a relationship: his own passionate and turbulent love affair with Shakespeare. An inevitably onesided affair, but one shouldn't quibble.
Like all such relationships, it had its dips and disillusions. His wide-eyed childish love gave way to adolescent cynicism. A series of gurus taught him that to get to the fertile valleys you had to pass over some very dry rocks. The critics Bradley and Leavis, both now derided by the modish Pharisees of modernism and postmodernism, taught him the value of character and textual analysis respectively.
In tandem with these influences, he had the precedent of his parents and grandparents, whose response to the theatre was both ferociously visceral and priestly. His father, an accomplished and revolutionary director (he gave the world a brutally cut production of Julius Caesar in which he "starred" as Mark Antony), taught him about the twin poles of pantheism and nihilism in Shakespeare. He learned just how intractable audiences could be when, his family having had their fill of his soliloquies, he declaimed to their herd of cows. Bovine applause came in the shape of plops. He learned the art of Shakespearean dialogue - and uneasy insights into grown-up stuff- from sparring with his sister. He learned about the permission the stage can grant. In Shakespeare he found a universal guru, a balm for his hurt mind, a human hero and a cheeky accomplice. He's chucked into hedges, he's "crap" at sport, he can't play "cowpat frisbee", but he sure knows his Shakespeare. The grand consolation offered is that the geek will inherit the earth.
Three motifs predominate: people "stiffen", "sob", "shake". Almost everyone in …