Shakespeare & Co
By Stanley Wells
ALLEN LANE pounds 25
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'Two white shepherd's coats, and 2 Danes' suits, and 1 pair of Dane's hose /1 lion skin, 2 moss banks, and one snake / Eve's bodice, 1 hat for Robin Hood /1 great horse with his legs / 1 rock, 1 cage, 1 tomb, 1 hell mouth / 2 marchpanes, and the City of Rome." It sounds like a kind of mad poetry, but this is a list: the Lord Admiral's Men in 1598, in their home at the Rose Theatre, made full inventories of their properties and costumes. Though these remarkable documents are reproduced at the close of Stanley Wells's book, they offer a good starting-place for appreciating the sheer, outrageous, world-consuming zest of the theatre in Shakespeare's day. Limits were few. The poet, as Sir Philip Sidney said "goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit"' he delivers a "golden" world. Hamlet's economic gesture towards his own "distract'd globe" encompassed head, theatre, world and all. Let us for all love remember, though, as 21st century shelves fill with yet more books detailing Shakespeare the man, his genius, and his "lost years", that in his time his head was not the only one busy transforming worlds.
Stanley Wells is a highly significant figure in the contemporary understanding of Shakespeare and his works, but his years of invaluable scholarship, his editing of Shakespeare's plays, his collaborative anthologies and numerous works of synthesis and explanation of the man and his legacy have not led to tunnel vision. Here he turns his attention to "and Co", and "attempts to place Shakespeare in relation to the actors and other writers, mainly playwrights, of his time in an accessible and where possible entertaining manner". The "where possible" is rather charming, and indicates correctly that there is something of a holiday mood about all this. While responsibility to his subject never wavers, he allows himself licence, quoting from the (monstrously unjust) portrayal of the boy Webster torturing mice in Shakespeare in Love, and exhibiting some relishable dry wit. Explaining the theoretical implications of Ben Jonson's preamble to Every Man Out of His Humour, he can't resist suggesting that latecomers might nevetheless "be relieved if they had known what they had missed".
To insist on Shakespeare as one among others is neither novel, nor even very exciting' after all, many undergraduate courses on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are designed to do just this. Goethe in 1824 compared Shakespeare with Mont Blanc: if the mountain was on a flat plain "we should find no words to express our wonder" - surrounded by other peaks his magnitude becomes more explicable. Yet Wells is splendidly placed to make a comprehensive and colourful job of understanding in new ways Shakespeare's debt to his peers. This is illuminating, well-planned and suggestive work, not only for those readers who have little acquaintance with the subject, but also for those already familiar with it. One of the greatest gifts of this book, as with James Shapiro's recent …