November 8th, 2008

Shakespeare

Bashing the Bard

On a couple of prior occasions, I’ve mentioned the book No Turn Unstoned, that delightful collection of the worst ever theatrical reviews, compiled by Diana Rigg. I want to pass along what I consider to be the most fascinating entry in the entire book. It isn’t actually a play review; rather, it is a critical assessment of William Shakespeare, penned in 1814 by the poet Lord Byron:

“Shakespeare’s name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down. He had no invention as to his stories, none whatever. He took all his plots from old novels, and threw their stories into a dramatic shape, at as little expense of thought as you or I could turn his plays back again into prose tales. That he threw over whatever he did write some flashes of genius, nobody can deny; but this was all. Suppose any one to have the dramatic handling for the first time of such ready-made stories as Lear, Macbeth, etc. and he would be a sad fellow, indeed, if he did not make something very grand of them. As for his historical plays, properly historical, I mean, they were redressings of former plays on the same subjects, and in twenty cases out of twenty-one, the finest, the very finest things, are taken all but verbatim out of old affairs. You think, no doubt, that ‘A Horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ is Shakespeare’s. Not a syllable of it. You will find it all in the old nameless dramatist.”

I haven’t done the research (nor would I know where to begin) to confirm or deny any of Byron’s allegations, but it is certainly a perspective on Master Will that I hadn’t heard before. More commonly, one hears the age-old debate as to whether this or that contemporary of Shakespeare’s was the true author of his work, but Byron points the discussion in an altogether different direction.

I must once again point out that IMHO, Rigg’s book is one that I think any actor would be (or ought to be) delighted to own!
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