Holes in the pocket;Books

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
A POCKET GUIDE TO SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS. Kenneth McLeish amp; Stephen Unwin. Faber and Faber pound;7.99.

The authors of this general introduction to Shakespeare are a prolific translator, playwright and man of letters (Kenneth McLeish, who died last year) and Stephen Unwin, a theatre director with more than 40 productions to his credit. They seek to break the ice between Shakespeare and student, play and play-goer, and to blow away the teacher's cobwebs. As well as plot synopses, they provide notes on the plays' sources and dramatis personae, character descriptions, judicious ruminations and notes on past productions.

The introduction is the least reliable part of the book. The combination of stage history and intellectual climate in Shakespeare's time stirs up muddied thoughts. Some generalisations may mislead; if we didn't already know that Shakespeare's Venice is really London in drag, what would we make of each play described as a "specific and meticulously realised social world"? Less excusably, wishful thinking can harden conjecture into absolute. There is no evidence, for instance, to support the existence of two doors at the first Globe or that As You Like It launched the theatre in 1599.

The plays are arranged alphabetically, which makes them easy to find and avoids the awkwardness of their disputed chronology (although a chronology is included). The notes on sources which head each chapter are welcome, and the synopses - likely to be the most popular part of the book - are businesslike and clear.

Of the discussions of play and character, which make up the bulk of each section, some are better than others. The comedies and histories fare quite well (the section on Henry IV is perhaps the most illuminating in the book in its account of the inter-relation of politics and character); the tragedies less so. A group of plays identified as exploring "great and noble minds giving way under the stress of private feeling" but which excludes Hamlet may strike some as not worth identifying. Hamlet, especially inimical to generalisation, fares badly throughout; that the play is "plain-spoken" seems a rather dangerous conviction to blurt out in the theatre foyer.

There's not much interest in language, which is a shame, although we are told on more than one occasions that it "dazzles", whatever that may mean. The summaries of past performances are brief and of necessity highly selective; here, early stage history fares better than it does in the introduction.

Most accounts are rounded off with a short passage from the plays. A nice touch, as is the design. Bearing in mind that the book will probably be consulted in a feverish and distracted state of mind in the back of a taxi on the way to the theatre or on foot to the examination hall, the publishers have kindly identified each section with a little Renaissance cuff and hand.

This is a workmanlike production, but not a crib to end all cribs. As a guide for theatre-goers, it's no rival to J.C. Trewin's genuine pocket companion (Mitchell Beazley), and as a general source of reference can't touch the albeit unportable Dictionary of Charles Boyce which, now that Wordsworth Editions have got their hands on it, is indecently cheap.

Nicholas Robins is editor of "Around the Globe", the Shakespeare's Globe magazine

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