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Does anyone know the nature of genius? Why is it or how is it that some people produce imaginative works of arts and sciences that so far outshine the ordinary that we are in awe as we stand before their works? Are these geniuses of another species than the rest of us? Are they somehow blessed by the gods? What ingredients are missing in those non-geniuses who end up reading about the real geniuses instead of producing outstanding and original works in the arts and sciences?
We have all heard that Einstein failed math as a student. And that Shakespeare was a poor kid with little or no education from hick town Stratford. Right?
Wrong. Einstein never failed math. And Shakespeare's family was not poor, but what today we would call middle class. And he had a fairly rigorous education in a good school in Stratford. We seem to thrive on telling stories about our geniuses, but often the stories are mere fabrications we tell ourselves in order to exaggerate their lives to make some point or other to help us understand how they could be so different from us.
We know a great deal about Einstein, and recent biographies are filled with revelations and information gleaned from papers, personal letters, and memoirs by people who knew him and worked with him. We have learned that he was able to keep secret even the existence of his first daughter, an illegitimate child whose life and death is still shrouded in mystery, and who is the subject of speculation and guesswork.
It's quite different with Shakespeare. We have a very limited number of biographical facts, a few documents with his signature, and some information from theatre records of the 17th century. Still there are some very large biographies of Shakespeare filled with stories that are usually introduced with phrases like, "It may have been..." or "It is likely that..." or "It could have been that...".
Brubaker's book is different. First of all he arranges the book on the basis of a plan he borrows from Gail Sheehy's book Passages (1974). In that book Sheehy suggested that every seven years or so we find ourselves in quite different circumstances as the world around us changes and we change with it. The seven-year plan provides a new framework for exploring and explaining Shakespeare's evolving genius within the changing world of Elizabethan England. Brubaker spotlights minor aspects of Shakespeare's life and art that might elude other biographers. For example, he explains Shakespeare's use of children in his plays in terms of the affection the playwright must have had for his own kids. "It seems to me that almost no other playwright of the period works on the emotions by using children in quite the same way," Brubaker notes.
Secondly Brubaker is in a unique position to write about Shakespeare because he has spent a life time in an intimate relationship with the Bard. He has taught the plays; he has acted in the plays; he has indeed been involved in some way or other with productions of all thirty-seven plays – acting, directing, stage-managing, and producing. He has worked on many different stages in the USA and in Canada but primarily in the theatres at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where he worked for several seasons in many different capacities. He has lectured widely on the plays, the theatres of the times, and studied Elizabethan culture and language as well as its history and politics. I first met Ed when he was playing Caliban in a splendid production of The Tempest, and I later played Antonio in a production of Twelfth Night which he directed on Vancouver Island. I mention this not only to indicate a personal connection with the author of the book under review but also to give a sense of the wide range of skills which Professor Brubaker brings to the understanding of Shakespeare. As an actor he was sensitive and powerful; as a director he was efficient and actor friendly but always true to the text and to the audience. Above all he was always a teacher.
When directing Twelfth Night, for example, after selecting his actors he held a read-through in which he indicated certain cuts to make the show a bit shorter, and then by the next day he had posted a rehearsal schedule in which the play had been broken into thirty-three units for purposes of rehearsal (this meant that actors knew exactly when they were to be at the theatre). Working with many student actors he was able to teach many skills on the way to the final production. I can still hear in my memory his booming voice answering a student question: "What emotion am I supposed to be feeling for this scene?"
"Just say the lines; the emotion will follow."
Brubaker's book is splendid. It is easy to read; written with respect and love for its subject. It is filled with interesting facts gleaned from a lifetime of research here and in the UK. He deconstructs many of the myths floating around Shakespeare and in so doing presents us with a fully human artist who worked and wrote in a specific time but who was able in his dramatic literature to touch the eternal truths of the human heart in original ways that will remain clean and true forever. Above all the Shakespeare that emerges from Brubaker`s book is deeply emerged in his times and in the theatre. He is an actor and hence understands an actor's point of view; he is a poet and hence knows how to make an audience see the truth beyond and through the words; he is a business man and hence knows how to construct a play so that it can be presented with as few actors as possible; he is, perhaps, a closet Catholic and hence knows the importance of ambiguity; he has been enchanted by drama from his childhood and hence is involved in a labor of love.
With a prologue and epilogue as bookends the book has seven major chapters each covering roughly seven years. Each chapter has a head note comprised of a quote from a playwright other than Shakespeare (an efficient way of showing that Shakespeare was not alone in the English renaissance theatre) and presents a mix of biographical material, analysis of the plays, and a review of the events of the time.
· Chapter 1 – The Cradle of Security 1564-1571
· Chapter 2 – Jack Juggler 1571-1578
· Chapter 3 – The Destruction of Jerusalem 1578-1585
· Chapter 4 – The Spanish Tragedy 1585-1592
· Chapter 5 – Sir John Oldcastle 1592-1599
· Chapter 6 – The Malcontent 1599-1606
· Chapter 7 – Mucedorus 1606-1613
Brubaker has presented his story of William Shakespeare with skill and insight. His readings of the plays are often extremely useful, coming as they do from a man of the theatre instead of a literary critic in a study. He sees the structure of the plays, the architecture developed by Shakespeare to present the complex rational-emotional complex that is Othello, Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and King Lear. The book suggests that the best source of information about Shakespeare the man is in the plays and poems that he crafted.
Shakespeare: A Life in Seven Chapters is a good read. It contains insights into genius, humorous stories, first rate interpretations, and an overall feeling of the value of drama and the drama of human life then and now. Let me say again: this is a splendid book.
[You can buy this book from the Franklin & Marshall College Bookstore, phone number (717) 291-4093]
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.