Once again, we revisit a title in my favorite source for mainlining quality information on niche topics, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. These guides are generally between one-hundred and two-hundred pages in length, and provide essential information on a specific topic or discipline without getting bogged down in minutiae or in attempts to be entertaining.
I’ve been reading (/rereading) the tragedies of Shakespeare, and thought the guide might give some insight into the background of the plays and the more obscure shifts in language and meaning. Which it did. I would say more the former than the latter. But it also brought up subjects that I wouldn’t have necessarily given much thought, such as how the nature of the theater of the day shaped the plays – e.g. what could and couldn’t be done and how it influenced the pacing.
The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, an epilogue, and the usual backmatter (i.e. references, recommended reading, index.) The introduction and first chapter together set the stage by explaining the nature of tragedy in literature and drama. The introduction deals more generally with the question of what is tragedy, while chapter one deals more specifically with theatric tragedies in Shakespeare’s time. The question of which of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, versus the other two genres of the day – comedies and histories, might seem straightforward, but it’s not. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are quite historical (e.g. “Julius Caesar”) and some of his comedies are fairly bleak (e.g. “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida”) and his tragedies generally have comedic elements and language (e.g. see: “Hamlet.”)
Having established differed approaches to defining tragedies, the remaining ten chapters each take on one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in what is believed to be chronological order: “Titus Andronicus,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Anthony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.” For each play, the author discusses things such as how what was going on at the time and where Shakespeare was in his career play into the character of the plays. However, much of the page space is occupied by laying out each story. In that sense, this guide is probably most useful for someone who has minimal experience with these plays. However, one will learn about how the plays were received at the time and subsequently, a little about the modern retellings (i.e. film, mostly,) and a little bit about how these works fit in the context of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those he borrowed from.
Having recently read Bart van Es’s “Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction,” I was thinking about which organizational scheme I preferred, between the two. Instead of organizing chapters by the play, as Wells does, van Es has chapters that are topically arranged — covering subjects like setting, language, characters, the role of time, etc. It should be noted that there is a good reason for this difference in approach. There are more comedies (18, by some — but not all — counts) and some of them are “more comedic” than others, and so the topical arrangement is more sensible for a short book (i.e. it wouldn’t make sense to have 18 or more chapters in a book designed to be concise, and it wouldn’t be the best use of space to have full chapters to cover “problem comedies” or “tragi-comedies.”) Ultimately, I don’t know that I have a preference. Both clearly have advantages, and I thought each approach was sensible for its subject.
A brief epilogue delves into why we are even interested in reading tragedies – Shakespearean or otherwise. As might be expected of an epilogue in such a concise guide, the author doesn’t bother arguing for a decisive answer, but rather presents a few alternatives in basic outline. The book has a few plates of artwork that take their subjects from the works of Shakespeare, notably paintings by the poet / artist William Blake.
I’d recommend this book as an accompanying guide for those reading through Shakespeare’s tragedies. It may prove slightly more beneficial for readers with limited experience of the works. However, even those who’ve read, watched, and reread the plays are likely to learn something new.