SHAKESPEARE IN AN AGE OF ANXIETY: John Lucas admires Neville Grant’s new study of Shakespeare’s plays prior to 1603 – and is already impatient for a sequel


Shakespeare in an Age of Anxiety
Neville Grant
Greenwich Exchange
ISBN 978-1-910996-73-70
430 pp   £24.99

Greenwich Exchange does well by Shakespeare. There is its on-going Student Guide Series to individual plays, which includes such excellent studies as Matt Simpson’s accounts of Othello and Macbeth, there is Martin Seymour-Smith’s lively account of The Sonnets, there is Loraine Fletcher’s important and in some ways ground-breaking Honour Killing in Shakespeare, and now we have Neville Grant’s detailed scrutiny of Shakespeare from his early years to the death of Queen Elizabeth. Grant’s book runs to over 400 pages and includes a useful if by no means complete Bibliography (but then how could it be), is lucidly written, and – very important, this – the pages of text are interspersed with and broken by framed paragraphs which provide detailed information about significant men and women of the period and who are glanced at, referred to, or count as offstage personages (these include Sir John Oldcastle from whom of course Falstaff derives, and the devious Earl of Essex). There are also any number of reproduced portraits of notables, as well as of actors in scenes from the plays (including, for example, a reproduction of Blake’s watercolour of fairies dancing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a lovely photograph of Judi Dench and Polly James in a 1971 production of The Merchant of Venice).

These seeming interpolations don’t in any way needlessly pester Grant’s text, nor are they a means to keep awake the fat boy at the back of the class. (Though I wouldn’t at all mind if they perform that task.) They are a perfectly acceptable way of thickening the multi-dimensionality of the Shakespeare who is under scrutiny, a method of not merely arousing but sustaining the reader’s interest, and although such a reader is more likely to be classified as ‘general’ than ‘specialist’, even specialists will, I’m pretty sure, gain from looking into this often detailed but never dull book.

As we all know, Shakespeare is not for an age but for all time. But at different times different Shakespeares have commanded the stage, have taken their bows and then retreated into the wings, Samuel Johnson’s account, wonderful as it remains, made way for Coleridge, Coleridge stood aside to make room for Hazlitt, Dickens (I want to insist) found [re]sources in the Bard that had largely been hidden until he unearthed them, or at least gave them new currency, from the detailed re-reading of the plays in the edition Macready had given him when The Inimitable set sail for America in 1842. And so on and on. I remember my great teacher at Reading University, D.J. Gordon, himself a major Renaissance scholar, remarking that Middleton Murry’s study of the plays deserved praise for the attention it drew to elements in The Tempest which ‘nobody, my dear Lucas, has much noticed, but which are ought to be decisive’ – (and here Gordon drew himself up to his full five feet four inches) – ‘I repeat, decisive in how we are to view the play.’

Since then Anthony Sher’s wonderfully original touring production has provided us with yet another way to respond to and indeed recognize how we must understand the closing lines, lines which not only require us to take the measure of Prospero’s ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,’ but which, at the very end of the play, redirect our attention away from us, the audience, to Caliban, who has crept on and is now listening as his erstwhile master, having noticed the black man’s stealthy appearance, pleads to him, to Caliban, ‘Let your forgiveness set me free.’ The actor is now not asking for applause, despite any inadequacy of performance, as is conventionally assumed and conventionally acted. In Sher’s enactment of the line, the actor does not bow to the magnanimous theatre goers. This white man is begging forgiveness from his former slave. This is not to play fast and loose with what Shakespeare wrote. It just to realize by speaking what is actually there, waiting to be discovered.

Having said this, I have to add that Grant’s work, unfailingly informative though it is throughout, stops well short of the last plays. In fact it stops short of discussion of the great tragedies. It comes to an abrupt halt with what I suppose we are intended to view as the conclusion of what the title proclaims ‘an age of anxiety.’ And this is a great pity as well as surely misleading. At all events, I don’t understand how the death of Elizabeth can be thought to have brought an end to anxieties about the state of the nation, the line of succession, religious orthodox, let alone the hostile noises coming from continental Europe. In all these matters it was business as usual, and such business is at the very least implicit in the tragedies, let alone the last plays, which includes some of the greatest Shakespeare ever wrote.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that Neville Grant intends to produce a second volume to his immensely useful and often uniquely valuable account of Shakespeare’s life and work, including further information about the theatres in which these works came to life. As it stands, his study, as well as providing sympathetic and invariably informative accounts of the dramatic work up to Twelfth Night, makes a point of giving us a well told- story of the uncertainties and vacillations that were integral to theatre work in Elizabethan England, so that we are always aware that the writing and production of plays in that period involved much that more orthodox, academic studies than Grant’s ignore. But it would be good to learn more about what happened during the opening decade of the 17th century when the theatre as architectural structure became more adept at using light and sound effects, and how these influenced or made possible some of the more visually and aurally demanding scenes in plays written and acted later than any of those mentioned in the work under review. Shakespeare in an Age of Anxiety is without doubt the result of long years of study, of prolonged, careful consideration. It is also a work that can be read with pleasure as well as profit by anyone at all interested in the greatest literary genius ever produced by the Western world. Now, how about Part Two?