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About this book

Why is Shakespeare as highly regarded now as he ever has been? This book's answer to this question counters claims that Shakespeare's iconic status is no more than an accident of history. The plays, Belsey argues, entice us into a world we recognize by retelling traditional fairy tales with a difference, each chapter providing a detailed reading.

Table of Contents

1. Shakespeare’s Singularity

Abstract
Let me begin with a question. What do the following expressions have in common: ‘high and mighty’; ‘every inch a king’; ‘the be-all and the end-all’; ‘make short work’; ‘the primrose path’; ‘the green-eyed monster’; ‘suit the action to the word’; ‘more in sorrow than in anger’; ‘poisoned chalice’; ‘sea-change’; ‘mind’s eye’; ‘tower of strength’; ‘the milk of human kindness’; and ‘the crack of doom’? They all sound proverbial. More precisely, however, they are all drawn from Shakespeare.1 In some ways these two observations amount to the same thing: Shakespeare is part and parcel of English-speaking culture, and not only high culture. In Britain now, phrases from the plays are still current, woven into the fabric of everyday life four hundred years after they were spoken on the early modern stage.
Catherine Belsey

2. As You Like It and ‘The Golden Goose’

Abstract
With a view to encouraging Rosalind and Celia to stay and watch the next stage of the wrestling, Monsieur le Beau embarks on an account of the story so far. ‘There comes’, he relates, ‘an old man, and his three sons—’ (As You Like It, 1.2.111). But Celia interrupts his narrative: ‘I could match this beginning with an old tale’ (112).
Catherine Belsey

3. King Lear and the Missing Salt

Abstract
Once upon a time there was a rich man who wanted to know how much his daughters loved him. The first said she loved him as her own life; the second answered, ‘Better than all the world’; but the third replied in a riddle: ‘I love you as fresh meat loves salt’. The father was enraged by this answer, which seemed to belittle him, and drove his youngest daughter out of the house.
Catherine Belsey

4. The Exiled Princess in The Winter’s Tale

Abstract
According to A. W. Schlegel in a lecture of 1811, delivered two hundred years after Shakespeare’s play was probably first performed, The Winter’s Tale has a particularly good title. This work, he argued,
is as appropriately named as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is one of those tales which are peculiarly calculated to beguile the dreary leisure of a long winter evening, which are attractive and intelligible even to childhood, and which … transport even manhood back to the golden age of imagination. The calculation of probabilities has nothing to do with such wonderful and fleeting adventures, ending at last in general joy.1
Schlegel may gild the play in his own imagination, but he is surely right about the significance of its name. The ‘dreary leisure’ of long winter evenings in earlier centuries can hardly be imagined by a generation that takes electric light and television for granted, not to mention central heating. In a society with no such advantages, by contrast, any story must have been exceptionally welcome, no matter how improbable the tale, at a time when darkness and bad weather kept people at home.
Catherine Belsey

5. Fairy Tales for Grown-ups in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Abstract
Theseus, Duke of Athens, has no time for old wives’ tales: ‘I never may believe/ These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’, he insists, in response to the stories the lovers tell of their night in the forest (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.2–3). ‘Toys’ are trifles; fables are improbable stories, tales of magic and marvels. And such fables are ‘antique’ in two senses: ancient, in so far as they generally record events that took place once upon a time, in a genre belonging to the vanished world it records; and ‘antic’, absurd, laughable, unlikely. The effects of Puck’s antics in the wood have indeed been laughable, as well as incredible: lovers have switched partners more than once; the fairy queen has spent the night with a donkey. If realism is our criterion of artistic success, A Midsummer Night’s Dream scarcely passes muster. Even one of the figures in the play does not believe the lovers’ fairy tales.
Catherine Belsey

6. Hamlet and the Reluctant Hero

Abstract
At school I was asked to write an essay on the question, ‘Why Does Hamlet Delay?’ The reason seemed obvious to me: if he hadn’t, the play would have ended early in Act 2. But I sensed that this was not the answer the teacher was looking for. In quest of an alternative way of completing the assignment, I read Hamlet with some attention and decided that in practice the hero didn’t delay all that much. On the contrary, while telling himself that he ought simply to get on and avenge his father, Hamlet struck me as behaving more rationally than that, checking the facts, assessing the damage, and selecting the right moment. This argument elicited a mark of C+.
Catherine Belsey

7. Twelfth Night and the Riddle of Gender

Abstract
In disgrace for his unexplained absence from her court, Olivia’s Fool restores his credit by a kind of riddle. Why, Feste asks his reclusive mistress, is it foolish to mourn for the brother you loved? Answer: because you believe he is in heaven (Twelfth Night, 1.5.63–71). Mourning is a requirement of the virtuous. In a more or less contemporary play, Hamlet finds the speed of Gertrude’s remarriage scandalous: ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason/ Would have mourn’d longer’ (Hamlet, 1.2.150–1). And yet, paradoxically, good Christians grieve for those they suppose in a better place. The acknowledgement of their happiness in another world does not bring the dead back, or alleviate the pain of their loss to the living, but the answer to the Clown’s riddle offers Olivia comfort, even so: ‘What think you of this fool, Malvolio, doth he not mend?’ (Twelfth Night, 1.5.70–1).
Catherine Belsey

8. Cultural Difference as Conundrum in The Merchant of Venice

Abstract
According to a folk tale that was still current in mid-twentiethcentury Scandinavia, a merchant named a pound of flesh as security when he bought a bride in Turkey worth her weight in gold. After their marriage the husband came to believe his wife had betrayed him, and drove her into exile. But she disguised herself as a man and returned to Turkey to find the merchant in prison, while his creditor demanded the pound of flesh. Pretending to be a judge, the faithful wife had her husband released.1
Catherine Belsey

Postscript

Happy Ever After?
Abstract
I should like to give this book a happy ending, in line with the fairy tales that have featured so prominently in its argument. I wish, in other words, I could produce a definitive answer to the question I set out to discuss, ‘Why Shakespeare?’ I have, after all, thought about very little else for the duration.
Catherine Belsey
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