- 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare by Laurie E. Maguire and Emma Smith
Laurie E. Maguire and Emma Smith’s 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare is a delightful read for Shakespeare enthusiasts and experts alike. While the organization of the essays under the itemization so beloved of journalists does at first provoke an irritable resistance—as in “why 30, why not 27?”—most of the essays are carefully crafted and worthwhile. Maguire and Smith’s concise chapters, deliberately devised to serve as models for undergraduate essays, are exemplary. For those professionally engaged with Shakespeare, the essays invite us to consider our own unexamined belief in certain myths as well as the lure of biographical readings. The book should be stocked in the bookshops of the new Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company so that Shakespeare enthusiasts can be stimulated and refreshed by the insights of recent scholarship. Half of the essays take up biographical myths. The myth that we know very little about Shakespeare’s life rubs up against a panoply of confident beliefs: that Shakespeare was not well educated, not interested in publishing his plays, never traveled, was Catholic, hated his wife, named Hamlet after his son, was a plagiarist, wrote alone, wrote autobiographical sonnets, wrote The Tempest as his farewell to the stage, had a huge vocabulary, did not revise his plays, and did not write Shakespeare.
Maguire and Smith mount a sustained critique against the major assumptions of bardolatry by exposing the romantic underpinnings that insist on the solitary production of the isolated genius. Helpfully repositioning Shakespeare in the theatrical life of early modern London, they show him as a writer who learned from, competed with, and collaborated with Marlowe, Middleton, and even George [End Page 214] Wilkins. For an instructor, it is helpful to consider the hold that Romantic genius continues to have as we attempt to sell Shakespeare to students who find his language increasingly difficult. I confess to a belief in the myth that “Shakespeare had a huge vocabulary” (137). Maguire and Smith challenge that myth by discussing the developments of English in the sixteenth century and the over-reliance of the lexicographers of the predigital Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on Shakespeare examples. Despite their efforts, I am not sure their work will destabilize the satisfying biographical trajectory that reads his development from tragedy to reconciliation in the romances.
Their deeper corrective lies in their exposure of our need to find exemplary moral virtue in a great writer. The 1599 evidence of Shakespeare’s grain hoarding disturbingly collides with our expectation of economic largess from this writer so imaginatively generous with words. For this wary college instructor about to face a classroom of students primed on the conspiracy theories of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, the book provided a strong dose of the Stratfordian good sense of the mainstream academic establishment—namely that Shakespeare was a man from Stratford who made good on the London stage and then returned to his family. Luckily Emmerich’s film does not seem to have embedded the Prince Tudor theory too deeply into popular culture. Maguire and Smith clear away the cobwebs of secret codes, multiple illegitimate births, and conspiracy. Their book further allows us to question our desire to pin down and possess the great writer. They cite Germaine Greer’s suggestion that misogynist assumptions about his hatred for Anne Hathaway derive from envy at her proximity to the writer—a proximity none of us can match. They allow us comfortably to see that confining legal, aristocratic, or military knowledge solely to aristocrats or credentialed professionals is naïve. Their strong case for a great writer as one who has a good ear, is observant, and has an imagination provides a gentle corrective to the scholarly source hunting that insists that every single word by a writer must have come from another book.
Another set of essays, concerning ideas recognizable less as myths than as reified claims taken from the plays—as in...