Because I did not attend college and spent all but one year of high school at home with arthritis following rheumatic fever, I had the good fortune to discover Shakespeare on my own. We were rural Missionary Baptists with no car and no phone — my father dead, my mother unemployed. A penciled note in a volume from a cheap set called World Famous Classics tells me that I first read “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1974. I was 16 and in a wheelchair. The first Shakespearean phrase I underlined during this period was “skirmish of wit,” about the raillery between Beatrice and Benedick, which inspired a lifelong expectation that romance must include snark.
I volunteer this personal history because Robert McCrum’s magnificent new book, “Shakespearean,” is about, in part, Shakespeare’s ability to speak to many kinds of people in many different ways. McCrum also found a new personal connection to Shakespeare through illness. In 1995, at 42, he suffered a massive stroke. “During convalescence,” he writes, “the Complete Works became my book of life. Almost the only words that made sense were snatches of Shakespeare, and next — as I began to recover — longer passages from King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and especially Hamlet, the play that rarely fails to supply a kind of running commentary to the inner dialogue of the self.” (He wrote about this experience more fully in 1999’s “My Year Off.”)
So now we know that Shakespeare can heal the sick and possibly raise the dead. I have always thought that if the old boy can wake a Tennessee bumpkin to literature and history, to irony and rhetoric, he can do anything. No wonder he is writing’s ambassador. As a consequence of his status, of course, Shakespeare is also written English’s most recognizable cliché, from middle-school skit to mouse pad. His image — the hippie locks and earring, that scruffy Elizabethan beard — is the Mona Lisa meme of literature. So why do we still read him, and why do so many people still flock to his plays, despite their archaisms lichened with footnotes and, to citizens of our ironic century, his easily parodied apostrophizing? Why do we still care?
McCrum addresses how Shakespeare moves us (from dread to laughter), how his fearless creativity grew out of his tumultuous era and personal history, and how these aspects were not at odds with meeting professional commitments. “Motivated by a hunger for artistic innovation,” McCrum says of Shakespeare, “he was increasingly drawn to risk and creativity.” Staying connected is what kept his creativity firing. “Shakespeare’s plays in performance,” McCrum writes, “offer the acute example of an art form in urgent dialogue with itself.”
Clearly McCrum is engaged with his own era. In a discussion of Shakespeare’s humor, he quotes from and analyzes a BBC interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of “Fleabag,” about how comedy works. He cites Snoop Dogg as one who incorporates vernacular speech into his work a la Shakespeare.
In McCrum’s thoughtful explorations of modern Shakespearean tragedy, Donald Trump naturally comes up. Trump’s own long-running American drama managed to remain as tragic as it was comic, inspiring comparisons to “Macbeth,” “Richard III” and even “Titus Andronicus.” After Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, John Cassidy commented in the New Yorker, “What a Shakespearean turn this story has taken.” Forsooth.
McCrum recounts an event you may recall: the 2017 New York “Shakespeare in the Park” production of “Julius Caesar,” in which the actor playing Caesar wore a MAGA cap and a long red tie. As always, the wannabe emperor died at the hands of his own cohort and rivals. Fox News claimed to consider this costuming a liberal attack on the president and in outrage suffered an inflamed chyron. McCrum attended this production a few days later and says it was the inspiration for this book.
He portrays Shakespeare as a man “who hungrily ingested the enthralling variety of the world around him. Shakespeare’s curiosity about everything under the sun makes him uniquely seductive: omnivorous, witty, sophisticated, wise and — from page to page — the most wonderful company.” Samuel Johnson would have agreed. “His descriptions have always some peculiarities,” Johnson wrote in his famous “Preface,” “gathered by contemplating things as they really exist.” He seems to have understood everything from varieties of sword to species of misgiving.
In his enthusiasm, McCrum doesn’t flinch from expressing broad-brush opinions, but he does it so well it doesn’t matter if occasionally he dresses opinion as fact. In talking about “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” for example, he nicely defines one of Shakespeare’s distinctive virtues: “What matters to these principals and their hangers-on, a motley crew of loquacious reprobates, is the quality that Shakespeare and the Elizabethans prized above all else — to wit: wit, the most reliable means of keeping oblivion at bay.” Speaking as someone who has reduced gloom through analgesic doses of “Much Ado About Nothing” for over four decades, I have to agree.
McCrum says he often thought of the Four Horsemen while following the apocalyptic Trump-era news and writing “Shakespearean.” “Only when my text was with the copy editor in the first weeks of 2020,” he adds, “did the pale horseman of plague and pestilence irrupt into my narrative in the shape of Covid-19, the greatest global disruption of our time.”
He then segues to 1564. Plague is ravaging the little town of Stratford-on-Avon, indiscriminately striking down urchin and priest. John and Mary Shakespeare have already lost two children to previous outbreaks — but miraculously this new pestilence does not take their newborn baby, William. “He would grow up to survive many kinds of extraordinary late-medieval emergency,” McCrum writes, “some of which now seem closer to us than we can ever have imagined.”
I had the odd feeling that Mr. McCrum had written this book for me. In Stratford-on-Avon, I have guffawed at Bottom’s midsummer-night translation into an ass; in Atlanta, I have yawned over “Julius Caesar’s” Cinna the Poet portrayed as a Vietnam veteran. I am not a Shakespearean scholar, but I have hiked around in this habitat, and “Shakespearean” is the first such tome that I have found not only thought-provoking but also moving and inspirational. McCrum’s living and breathing book reminds us why the fire of literature warms the soul.
Michael Sims, whose books include “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau,” is writing a book about the young Frederick Douglass.
On Life and Language in Times of Disruption