Wednesday, 8 December 1999

Dennis Kay: Shakespeare: His Work, Life and Era (1992)

Edition: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1992
Review number: 401

As yet another biography of Shakespeare, a book needs to have something different about it to fight its way through all the others. Apart from his eminence which means that there is much competition, his life also suffers from a scarcity of hard facts as opposed to legends. Kay's particular slant is to aim to place the plays and poems in the context of the life and the times. It is almost more a work of literary criticism than a biography, if unfashionably centred on the author rather than the reader. He has little to say about the life that isn't well known, his descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics and theatrical history are more interesting, but it is his summaries of the themes and circumstances of the plays themselves that are the finest parts of the book. Each play gets about four pages, little enough space to describe them; but Kay is able to illuminatingly set out the themes which show Shakespeare's concerns and development as a writer. He is unfailingly orthodox, keen to avoid the strange obsessive flights of the imagination that characterise many writers on Shakespeare, most obviously (recently) Ted Hughes. He does not want to use the writings to illuminate the life, a dangerous but common practice, but vice versa.

The book has a terrible index (but even that is more than Hughes' Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being). Every play is given space in the book, but some are not listed at all in the index.

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