What are the best books on...

Fiction

The best books on The Best Plays of Shakespeare

recommended by Emma Smith

In the first of a series marking the 400th year since the playwright's death, we ask Shakespearean scholar Emma Smith to pick her five favourite plays.

Buy

Emma Smith

Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her book The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio (2015), tells the story of the birth of the First Folio and Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016) describes its reception over the four hundred years of its history.

Save for later

Emma Smith

Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her book The Making of Shakespeare's First Folio (2015), tells the story of the birth of the First Folio and Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (2016) describes its reception over the four hundred years of its history.

Save for later
 

You’ve written a book on the reception of the First Folio, and one on how the First Folio came to be published. How much do we owe of our understanding of Shakespeare to the First Folio? Would we be celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death if we didn’t have that book?

That’s a really interesting counterfactual. The First Folio is our sole documentary source for half of Shakespeare’s plays. So, probably, if it hadn’t been printed, we would not have those eighteen plays—plays like Macbeth and The Tempest, and Twelfth Night—and we would have a really different shape to Shakespeare’s career. He would be known as an Elizabethan playwright rather than a Jacobean one. The history plays would be more prominent, we would have a much smaller corpus of work overall. I think that would make a difference.

“I think that—particularly in the theatre—a lot of Shakespeare is too long.”

There are other, more practical, things about the First Folio. Because it’s a big book, it’s been difficult to lose. For example, when the theatres reopened at quite short notice when Charles II came to the throne in 1660, one of the people—Thomas Killigrew—who was charged with getting the theatres up and running owned a copy of the First Folio, and he turned to it to think about what to put on. There are ways in which the size and permanence of the book have made Shakespeare more permanent in our cultural lives.

There was a collected edition of the works of Thomas Middleton about ten years ago. Middleton wrote as much as Shakespeare, and across a range of genres. But because he’d never appeared in that format we’d lost our sense of that. Being collected or not being collected does make a difference to a critical reputation.

What’s your impression, as a historian of the book, of why Shakespeare has become such a globally important figure. Do you feel it’s as a result of his individual genius, or was it more influenced by these editorial decisions?

It’s a difficult question. I think it’s there in the inherent characteristics of the work. There are ways Shakespeare’s plays were never all that fashionable. If you look at other writers of the time, they’re writing something much more urban and contemporary. Those plays may have been more popular then, but there’s something timeless about the faraway locations and archetypal plots that Shakespeare has. They make him very available to being reinterpreted in different cultures, both historically and geographically.

“I think the problem plays are part of a bleak moral world view right at the end of Elizabeth’s reign.”

I also think that by gathering these works together in 1623 and putting them out with a big puff from other writers and an imposing picture of the playwright, a statement was made about the importance of this writer that gave him a kick start into the seventeenth century.

There’s a fascinating intersection between the idea of genius and a very practical series of decisions made by booksellers.

We know there was all kinds of contingent business when the First Folio came together. It was a big job of work to get done and to get organised. Troilus and Cressida only got in at the last minute because they couldn’t get the rights. Quite likely there are some copies that don’t have it, because it was slotted in when copies were already for sale. It could have been very different because of these practical considerations.

Let’s talk about Macbeth. This is your first in preference. Why?

This is going to sound heretical, but I think that—particularly in the theatre—a lot of Shakespeare is too long. I think Act 4 in a lot of Shakespeare plays is a bit of a bum-number, and not much happens. I like to see Shakespeare intelligently cut, often to speed it up. Macbeth is a play that may have been cut. We don’t really understand the provenance of that text. It’s very short by Shakespearean standards and it’s very powerful because of that. There’s no subplot, there’s no parallel plot. Just this really intense journey through a psychological drama. It’s a really punchy play because everything is tightly headed in the same direction: the language, the imagery, the plot, the way the characters work. It’s a really superbly powerful, compact, condensed play.

As you’re a textual scholar, can you tell me something about the history of the text of the play?

The textual history has changed a lot very recently. In the last ten or fifteen years we have come to think that the play as we have it probably represents a revision by Middleton of a Shakespearean original. We don’t know the extent of Middleton’s work on the play. We don’t know whether it’s merely that he slotted in some extra witchy material that he had from his own play, called The Witch. Did he bring in the Hecate scene? This is an interesting moment where witches become spectacular in a way that’s not primarily frightening, but visually compelling: they sing and they dance. What Middleton seems to do with Shakespeare’s play is to bring in some of that more fashionable material. So, we don’t know what the play that Shakespeare wrote in the first place was like and that may explain why it’s so short. It may be that Middleton streamlined it, or took certain bits out.

To what extent do you think Shakespeare wants us to believe that the witches are real?

In certain ways the psychological drama of Macbeth, which is a drama about temptation and ambition, doesn’t need the witches to set it off. It doesn’t need the supernatural backdrop. You could use an idle moment of someone in court saying, “you must be thinking you’d be a good king.” But the play, I think, is really ambivalent about whether the witches cause things. One of the things I like about it is that it’s about the question of agency. Who makes all these terrible crimes happen: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or some supernatural elements? The play seems to present all those as possibilities but not endorse any of them.

Next is Measure for Measure. It’s a so-called ‘problem play’, what drew you to it?

It’s not a likeable play, they’re not likeable characters, it’s not a warm play. I think it’s a different side of Shakespeare, writing a philosophical, ideas-driven play. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about it is a sense that it seems like a mash-up. It feels to me as though all the characters are off-cuts from other plays. Claudio, Isabella’s brother who’s imprisoned, wants to be Hamlet. He wants to have big long speeches about death and the unknowability of it. The Duke wants to be in a romantic comedy where he can say at the end, “Hey presto, here we all are and we’re getting married.” Angelo, I think wants to be Brutus, or a tragic figure. And Isabella wants what lots of women in Shakespeare’s comedies want, which is to be independent and not to have a husband. We always know that if that’s what a woman says at the beginning of the play, she is not going to be able to say it at the end. Shakespeare sees a woman who says she doesn’t want to get married as a challenge. He’ll throw the most extraordinary plot at that woman in order to make her marry.

Is the play an exploration of selfishness?

It’s about the impossibility of compromise, or people who won’t compromise. In Measure for Measure, Isabella and Angelo are puritanical fundamentalists who deserve each other. That’s a deeply unfeminist thing to say, because she doesn’t want him and he’s an aggressor, I can see that. But the play has got all this sex in it and all these marriages at the end, and the only scenes that could possibly count as courtship scenes of back-and-forth conversation between a man and a women—as we get in comedy—are the interviews between Isabella and Angelo. They’re a really perverse kind of wooing scene.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

What do you think the play tells us about Shakespeare’s attitude towards sex?

My academic training is very resistant to the implications of that question. Given that Shakespeare’s plays depict such different things, it’s a category error to think that any one of them tells us what he thinks about a single topic. I think the problem plays are part of a rather bleak moral world view right at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, during the plague, and a sense of corruption that we’re going to see rather interestingly developed in Jacobean plays. It may tell us something about the times rather than about him.

Twelfth Night is my favourite, and a very similar and very different play. Why did you choose it?

If you’ve got Measure for Measure in your mind, Twelfth Night looks a bit darker. What I really like about this play is its sexual playfulness. It seems very modern in that way. There’s no way to play it straight. You’ve either got Orsino in love with Cesario, or you’ve got Olivia in love with Viola, and you’ve always got Antonio in love with Sebastian. It feels to me as if its subtitle What You Will, is a cheeky way of saying ‘whatever, anything goes’. I like the fact that quite often you see productions where at the end Olivia and Orsino are still mixing up the twin they are with and there’s still playfulness. Why do you like it?

For similar reasons: the playfulness and the fact there are problems. Olivia and Sebastian’s marriage makes no sense. They’re suddenly put together at the end merely because Sebastian looks like Cesario.

Yes, because if you believe in the Orsino/Cesario relationship, which says that someone’s externals don’t matter, and what matters is how you get to know them, then the Olivia/Sebastian relationship seems to give exactly the opposite message. It’s really hard to reconcile them. There’s a very dark view of the play, which is that Olivia is being punished like Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, even like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, or Isabella, for opting out of the marriage world and for running her own household. She’s bought out of that in a very extreme way.

Is she punished for falling in love with a woman?

I wonder, yes. We tend to think a woman dressing as a man must have been a great transgression of social order, but that doesn’t seem the case in Twelfth Night. Viola is the only person who’s really rewarded in the play. She knows who she wants and she gets him, and everybody else’s ending is a little more compromised. Think about how Viola is treated for pretending to be a man against how Malvolio is treated for pretending to be rich, or for wanting to marry advantageously.

I think comedy is quite a conservative form. Shakespeare is much more sexually liberated than he is in terms of social class. He seems to feel it’s impossible for people to change where they’re born.

Which is interesting because Twelfth Night itself is historically the period of misrule.

Yes, gender inversion is ok. Though the idea of the master waiting on the servants, the social inversions which were part of Twelfth Night, are not ok.

Viola bides her time like no other character in the plays, hence her famous speech about being “patience on a monument.” Could this be the reason she’s rewarded at the end, because she’s passive?

I remember reading an interview with Zoe Wanamaker, when she played her, saying Viola is a catalyst, she comes into this very static world where people are fixed in their roles, and she breaks things up. But I think scientifically a catalyst is itself quite inert. It acts on other people and other things but isn’t itself active. That would fit with that idea.

I was surprised you chose Pericles. It’s not in the First Folio. Is it the only play not in the First Folio?

Two Noble Kinsman is not in the First Folio either.

Why did you choose it?

Because it distills a lot of the elements of the late plays: romances like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline. It’s a very retro play, it’s looking backwards. Its form is nostalgic, its language is pretty nostalgic. It seems like a very odd little piece of almost medievalism. Also, I think that the reunion between Pericles and Marina at the end of the play is probably, when I’ve seen it in the theatre, the most moving moment in Shakespeare that I have experienced. There are lots of problems with it. It’s not realistic except emotionally. It’s got emotional realism in this unbelievable, fairytale structure.

It begins with incest, there’s something very real about that.

Absolutely. It begins with incest and can’t ever quite get away from it. Pericles meets Marina at the end because somebody says, “there’s this very chaste woman who works in a brothel and can cheer anyone up, go and see her,” and it’s his own daughter.

In a production I saw years ago a lot of the audience walked out in the interval because the plot is so confusing. Could you tell me about its reception?

Contemporaries loved it. There’s a line in Ben Jonson, where he talks about plays that are too popular, and therefore can’t be very serious. He talks about a “mouldy old tale like Pericles.” It gets reprinted. It’s not in the Folio, either because it’s not completely Shakespearean or because they didn’t think it was very good, which is what we tended to believe. But it may be that it’s not in the Folio because it was too commercially alive a product for them to get the rights to reprint. There are lots of references to Pericles in the period which suggests it’s a really popular play. There’s a really tantalising piece of performance history where we know a group of Catholic travelling actors in North Yorkshire around 1609/1610, were arrested for performing Pericles and King Lear for Catholic households. It was popular, though I think it became old-fashioned quite quickly. It’s nostalgic and knows that it’s outdated, but quite quickly it just came to look outdated without that irony. I think it struggled to find a place. Again, the First Folio is important, it’s struggled to find a place in the canon since then. It may be that only recently it has got some performance history and is starting to recover the ways in which it can be powerful. There have been some really interesting projects where refugee groups have done Pericles. It is a play about being homeless and being in movement. These people moving about on the sea, separated from family. It may, horribly, turn out to be one of the more topical Shakespeare plays.

Richard II is your last. Why did you choose it?

Richard II is an amazingly poetic play, all in verse. It has very beautiful, formal language all through. It has the quality of a dramatic poem. I love the fact it’s so politically balanced that you can see a production that makes you really despise Richard for his self-indulgence and his passivity, or that makes you really sympathise with him for the impossibility of the position he’s in. I think Shakespeare has given us a script within which you can find a pro-Richard play, or a pro-Henry play. I think that’s quite different from the other history plays, that tend to be a little clearer where the emphasis is.

It’s a history in the First Folio, but a tragedy elsewhere.

For me, if we call it a tragedy, Richard is our focus, and Richard’s demise is the end of our interest in the other characters and in the play. That’s how tragedies work. Our dramatic sympathies are really clear if it’s a tragedy. If it’s a history, the emphasis on Bolingbroke is quite different. There is going to be something after Richard, that’s a given. Like everyone in the play, we have to transfer our interest to the new man in order to go forward. Is Bolingbroke like Fortinbras in Hamlet: a sideshow nobody cares about? Or is he the person who is going to take a whole sequence of plays forward? I think it is really different if you’re reading it in a sequence going from Richard II to Henry V than if you’re reading it, as people did when it was first printed, as a single stand-alone play, emphasised by the idea of being a tragedy.

I was thinking about Marlowe’s Edward II, they seem to me like very similar plays, but only if you see Richard as an individual play.

Absolutely. In some ways those questions don’t arise out of Marlowe’s play as we don’t have any sequels. That comparison between Richard II and Edward II used to be something criticism was interested in. It’s fallen away because we’ve tended to focus on the idea of the histories as a sequence. That’s been really prominent in performance. It feels rare to see these plays as standalone plays now. They’ve become a part of a commemorative culture. If there’s a big anniversary or a big event, you do a block and get people to go to all of them, whereas I think that sense of Richard as a single play is why I like it.

You’ve chosen a tragedy, a comedy, and a history. The plays were divided into these sections in the First Folio. What did this taxonomy get right?

Looking again at the Folio, I think a more expected way to organise the plays would have been by authorial chronology. Of course, that puts certain plays into conversation with each other, but it also tends to marginalise early plays as juvenile, or immature. Whereas the division by genre is completely uninterested, apparently, in an idea of authorial development, or even the development of the genre. And I think that is something which we could do with going back to, rather than being so focussed on chronology.

Interview by Beatrice Wilford

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.