Friday, 16 December 2011

At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean - preview online

As an early Christmas treat, I'm delighted to bring you an exclusive digital preview of At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean by Steve Mentz!

Click on the 'preview' button to the left to read the introduction and first chapter 'Fathoming: The Tempest and King Lear'.

Rereading the pays from a maritime perspective connects Shakespeare to our literary culture’s on-going efforts to come to grips with the sea. Shakespeare’s ocean reveals itself through contrast and continuity with the thundering seas of Romantic and post-Romantic literature… Shakespeare portrays an always moving ocean whose full meaning emerge through counterpoint with his literary heirs.

It’s to the bottom of Shakespeare’s ocean that this book takes you, except for one thing: we never get to the bottom. The deep sea’s floor, as unreachable to early modern Europeans as the moon, is a place these plays never reach. When the sea-bed gets invoked, in Clarence’s dream or Hotspur’s fantasy of rescuing “drowned honour” or Prospero’s muddled book, it represents the impossible fantasy of knowing the unknowable, reaching the bottom of a bottomless place.’
- from the introduction to At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

General Editors Preface to the Second-Wave of the Series

We begin with the passions of the critic as they are forged and explored in Shakespeare. These books speak directly from that fundamental experience of losing and remaking yourself in art. This does not imply, necessarily, a lonely existentialism; the story of a self is always bound up in other stories, shared tales of nations or faiths or of families large and small. But such stories are also always singular, irreducible to the generalities by which they are typically explained. Here, then, is where literary experience stops pretending to institutionalized objectivity, and starts to tell its own story.

Shakespeare Now! is a rallying cry, above all for aesthetic immediacy. It favours a model of aesthetic knowledge as encounter, where the encounter brings its own, often surprising contextualising imperatives. Implicit in this is the premise that art is as much a subject as an object, less like aggregated facts and more like a fascinating person or persons. And encountering the plays as such is unavoidably personal.

Much recent scholarship has been devoted to Shakespeare then—to producing more information about the presumed moment of their inception. But this moment of inception is in truth happening over and over, again and again, anywhere that Shakespeare is being experienced anew or freshly. For the fact is that he remains, by a country mile, the most important contemporary writer—the most performed and read, the most written about, but also the most remembered. It is, then, not so much about Shakespeare in the present, as though his vitality is measured in his passing relevance to great events. It is about his works’ abiding presence.

In some ways criticism needs to get younger —to recover the freshness of aesthetic experience, and so in part better to remember why any of us should care. We need a new directness, written responses to the plays which attest to the life we find in them and the life they find in us.

Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Graham Holderness on Anonymous

Nine Lives of William Shakespeare makes its appearance in a storm of controversy surrounding the film Anonymous, which presents the case that the true author of Shakespeare’s works was in fact Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. As many people have already pointed out, the film departs from history, invents the unhistorical, and distorts the historical to fit its thesis. But is this really the right way to approach it? At the end you see the conventional disclaimer affirming that it’s fiction:

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Why not remove the film from the environment of scholarly argument and intellectual debate, and accept it as fiction? Roland Emmerich is not known as a factual filmmaker. Did anybody go to see Godzilla and think this was really going to happen? Did anybody ever go to see Independence Day and start looking nervously out of the window?

Shakespeare scholarship is countering Anonymous with evidence and facts. In their e-book Not So Anonymous, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson refute alternative authorship claims as ‘a web of fantasy’. ‘It may be enticing to believe in stolen documents, secret codes, buried treasure, and illegitimate children of Elizabeth I. But the belief itself doesn’t make the fantasy true’.

Nine Lives of William Shakespeare
also speculates freely about Shakespeare’s life, but admits that the exercise is one of speculation. Half of the book deals in historical facts, showing how much and how little we know about Shakespeare; and showing how these facts have been interpreted and embroidered by biographers. The other half is fiction.

In the end these diverse fictions must be judged in terms of what they suggest about Shakespeare as a writer, and about the value of his work. In Anonymous, De Vere writes alone and in secret. Isolated from the theatre, from society, from other professional writers, he produces a series of neatly-written manuscripts of wholly completed plays, each one bound up in a leather folder. All Shakespeare’s masterpieces are there, each one finished to perfection before being handed over to the professionals for them to produce in the theatre.

And what are these plays like when actually performed in the theatre? The plays are presented, in exactly the way they are interpreted in Thomas Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, as political propaganda, agit-prop for the cause Oxford espouses, the reactionary idea of putting the feudal military aristocracy back in control of the state, and disempowering the new parvenu class of civil servants represented by the Cecils. We see Henry V offering a model of heroic and popular leadership. We see Hamlet as a wholly transparent roman-a-clef designed to satirise William Cecil. We see Richard III, performed on the eve of the Essex insurrection (in place of the play mentioned in the historical record, Richard II), and deployed merely to satirise Robert Cecil.

So even if we just take the film as an imaginative exploration of a fictional subject, the plays emerge from this treatment flattened, attenuated, reduced in significance. They appear to encode only the political ambitions of one man, which is why they need to be so perfectly finished in the study; and they act out a journalistic commentary on the contemporary political scene. As James Shapiro put it in Guardian, ‘the author of the great plays is reduced to a political propagandist, his plays to vehicles to advance his faction's cause’.

Compare my chapter on ‘Shakespeare the Writer’, available from Continuum as a free preview, and the accompanying story ‘The Shakespeare Code’. The chapter presents Shakespeare, from the historical record, as very much as an engaged, collaborative, participatory writer for the stage. He belongs to the boards and the streets, not the study. The story, which is specifically about ‘stolen documents, secret codes, buried treasure’, is just as fantastic as Anonymous, with no resemblance to any persons living or dead. But it suggests a very different view of Shakespeare’s writing. It’s a fable that explores these issues not literally but symbolically, as do Shakespeare’s own plays. It hooks onto real historical facts, but is also more concerned – as was Shakespeare himself - to think with and beyond them, than to regard them as restrictions on the liberty of the imagination.

- Graham Holderness, author of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare

We are currently running a competition to win a signed copy of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare - more details can be found here! The competition ends on Wed 14th December.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Win a signed copy of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare!

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of our publishing year. One such highlight, without doubt, has to be Graham Holderness’s marvellous Nine Lives of William Shakespeare, from the Shakespeare Now! series, which was named 'Book of the Week' by the Times Higher Education. Critics agree that it’s an outstanding work of Shakespeare scholarship that engages with the debates surrounding his life. Its unique approach - offering nine possible short 'lives' of Shakespeare, each based on specific facts and traditions – sets it apart from other studies and breathes new life into well-trodden ground.

Beautifully presented in hardback with a dust jacket, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare is the ideal gift for the family bookworm or a well-read friend!

I am delighted to announce that we are giving away two signed copies to celebrate the excellent reviews that the book has received since its publication!

To be in with a chance of winning, simply send an email to with the subject line 'Nine Lives' by Wednesday 14th December.

Now take a look at some of the critical acclaim:

'Graham Holderness knows the power of the Shakespeare myth and its fictions… in this volume, he offers a twist… Recognising the flimsy factual basis for Shakespeare biography, he draws on wit and wordplay to flesh out a fiction more palatable than the po-faced fantasies of the scholarly biographers. The nine Shakespeares on show here — writer, player, butcher boy, businessman, husband, friend, lover, Catholic and portrait — are each lovingly dissected before being painstakingly reassembled.’ Times Higher Education

‘What is this mad desire to unmask and debag William Shakespeare? … the eminent Graham Holderness explains [all] in his expert survey of the verifiable historical facts’ The Daily Mail

'Book of the Week’ ReadySteadyBook

'As a biographical study, this is fascinating for the way in which it looks at possible interpretations of a long-bygone life... any devotee of the Bard, or even of Tudor social history, will certainly find much to savour here.’ The Bookbag

'Required reading for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s life or in how literary biography gets written. There’s no better place to turn for distinguishing facts and traditions from more imaginative accounts of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare. Graham Holderness is a terrific guide and a talented writer.’ James Shapiro, author of 1599 and Professor of English at Columbia University, USA

'Like Prospero, Graham Holderness has conjured up a world -- inks and quill pens, lost manuscripts, sheep-shearing fairs, courtship rituals, seventeenth-century acting techniques, religious rites, business dealings. To name a few. There have of course been hundreds of biographies of William Shakespeare down the centuries, but none so breathtakingly nimble and adroit as this one. Shakespeare has long been a battleground between what can be historically verified ( not much ) and what in the end is simply speculation ( of which there has been a very great deal ). Holderness -- who is saturated in his subject -- disentangles fact from fiction, but then starts to weave beautiful new tapestries of his own. This is the best and most enjoyably imaginative book on Shakespeare since Anthony Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun -- high praise, as Burgess' only rival was the chapter about Shakespeare in James Joyce's Ulysses. Were he to bound back from beyond the grave, this is the volume Shakespeare himself would most love reading.’ Roger Lewis, author of The Life & Death of Peter Sellers and Seasonal Suicide Notes

Don't forget to enter by Wednesday 14th December - the winners will be picked at random from a hat by one of my lovely colleagues and announced the same day.

Best of luck!

Jenny Tighe

Marketing Executive

Welcome to the re-launched Shakespeare Now! blog!

As the series hits its ‘second wave’ we have revamped its digital presence to match.

Committed to the aesthetic and intellectual rejuvenation of literary criticism and to the need for a novel sense of direction and directness in our discussions of Shakespeare’s work, it makes sense to consider and discuss Shakespeare Now! on the World Wide Web. The supple, responsive and fluid nature of digital writing perfectly lends itself to our ambition to elicit and share brave new ways of thinking and talking about Shakespeare’s texts. This is the place where readers and lovers of Shakespeare can follow and contribute to this conversation.

This blog will keep you up to date on the series by grouping together major reviews and articles on the books and the topics they raise, supplementary pieces on the series contributors and their work, competitions, and opportunities for reader discussion and feedback. Forthcoming features include Philippa Kelly’s reflective account of her four-city tour of Australia launching The King and I and a competition offering the chance to win signed copies of Graham Holderness’s Nine Lives of William Shakespeare.

Once again, we welcome you to our online forum and we hope you help us to continue the debate about Shakespeare’s creative and enduring presence, Shakespeare in the now

Theodora Papadopoulou and Will McKenzie
Blog Editors
and co-editors of Shakespeare and I