Watch This! : Richard III

3.0 out of 5 stars McKellen’s turn

Ian McKellen takes his shot at the consummate villain role, and a well-aimed shot it is. I generally like my Shakespeare acted within its own time frame, but for a modern production, this one isn’t bad. The 1930’s sets, backdrops, and music are over-the-top in their presentation, lending a surreal, supremely fascistic aspect to this history play. It translates well. McKellen’s delivery of Richard’s famous lines is spot-on. Watching Maggie Smith is a joy, as usual, and veterans Kristin Scott Thomas, Edward Hardwicke (better known to Americans as Sherlock Holmes’s Watson), and Nigel Hawthorne perform admirably in important supporting roles. On the down side, Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. are almost comically miscast, their presence jarring and shallow. Then again, it’s a rare American “movie star” who isn’t routinely upstaged, and badly, by classically trained British actors.

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Biography: Shakespeare – Court, Crowd and Playhouse

5.0 out of 5 stars Living art

“A universal master whose achievement is timeless, Shakespeare is nevertheless inseparable from his age – the brilliant pageant of Elizabethan England.” This pocket sized book demonstrates the truth of this back cover blurb, and does so in style. This is a souvenir style little volume, printed on thick glossy paper and overflowing with rich color illustrations, most of contemporary works of art. Beginning at the beginning, with Will’s early life in Stratford, the text proceeds to cover Elizabethan customs and traditions, life in London, the theater and its practices, and Elizabeth I herself. The last third is an appendix of articles about the treatment of W. S. and his works over the centuries. A delightful resource that puts Shakespeare firmly in his place – and time!

Biography: Shakespeare, the World as Stage, by Bill Bryson

5.0 out of 5 starsWhat we know and how we know it

Bill Bryson has taken an icon about which millions of scholarly words have been expended, and made him accessible to all. Writing in a casual, comfortable style, Bryson applies his skills as an investigative journalist to answering the questions, “Who was Shakespeare?” and “What evidence exists about his life and work?” It’s so easy for admirers of the Bard to get stuck in the endless swirl of invention, speculation, theory, and argument, never quite sure what’s what. Who knew how man ways there were to spell Shakespeare or sheriff ? In 1600, who cared, or even noticed? Why did Will leave his wife his second best bed? Was he really a closet Catholic? What did he look like?

The value of this book lies in its “just the facts, ma’am” approach. The facts are few and usually ambiguous, but Bryson ferrets them out and does a creditable job analyzing what they reveal. And it’s difficult to disagree with his conclusions. The play’s the thing.

Mystery: Chasing Shakespeares, by Sarah Smith

4.0 out of 5 stars Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?

Joe is a scholar, first in his family, eager to prove himself in the cutthroat world of academia. Posy is a spoiled little rich girl who has learned the fine art of manipulation from her daddy. Sarah Smith does an excellent job here in taking the reader through the grueling, time consuming, and often tedious process of researching the literary past. Although the plot does sometimes bog down in detail, some of which is a bit obscure for the average reader of Shakespeare or anyone else, it was fascinating to trace the development of a theory from beginning to, well, middle, not end. Posy’s combination of Valley Girl and Friends-speak becomes annoying, but she is consistent, you have to give her that. Joe’s sudden philosophical awakening at the end is interesting to watch, as he adapts to his disappointment and readjusts his sails. Will Cat and Joe become a couple? I’d love to be able to find out. Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? We may never know for sure, but I’d love to be able to find that out even more.

Biography: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Stephen Greenblatt has written a new compilation of facts about William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon. Partly a reinterpretation of information long-known, partly a statement of relatively new details, and partly speculation, this biography is worthwhile because it is offered by a respected writer who wholeheartedly believes that Shakespeare is no more or less than the man from Stratford. Greenblatt’s ideas about how an uneducated fellow from the boondocks could possibly have written such great literature is fairly convincing. He does not attempt to gloss over the less savory features of Will’s character, nor to romanticize his marriage or his pilfering from the works of others. The major flaw in this volume is its length, with pages of minutia about minor points. (Excessive length seems to be a common fault these days.) Otherwise, this is a valuable, updated overview of what is currently known about the most famous English author in history.