by Kirk Woodward
[In my recent report on the production of William Shakespeare’s Pericles at the Theatre for a New Audience (posted on 1 April), I made a reference to Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and a blog article on that reference book by writer Isaac Asimov. Well, this is that article, by my friend and frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward. I feel I no longer need to introduce Kirk in order to establish his creds for ROTters; I’ve done that so often now, it seems unnecessary. (If you’re new to this blog, use the search app above to find earlier pieces by Kirk and read a few of my introductions. Almost any of his many previous posts will include a run-down of his qualifications to sound off on anything theatrical or musical and a list of some of his other articles posted in ROT.
[As for Asimov’s Shakespeare, as the book is known for short, I’ll let you discover its usefulness. What I’ll say here is that Kirk provides a good book report and you’ll get a fine idea of why he’s so positive about this book. Even if you’re not particularly interested in Shakespeare—and I can only say that you should be—I’m confident you’ll find some interesting tidbits below. You others—the ones who are interested in the Bard of Stratford—may decide it’s a book worth owning. Or at least having a good, long look at.]
Recently in this space I praised Frank Kermode’s book Shakespeare’s Language as an invaluable resource for reading and understanding Shakespeare’s plays – and acting them too (see “Frank Kermode on Shakespeare’s Language,” 26 January 2016). I’m happy to report another very different kind of resource, as valuable in its own way as Kermode’s book. It’s called Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (Doubleday, 1970) and it’s by the extraordinarily prolific writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992).
Asimov is perhaps best remembered today as the author of the Foundation series of science fiction novels (the first was published in 1942, the last posthumously in 1992). He’s also remembered, I should think, because he’s credited with writing or editing some 500 published books – an astounding number. His interests were vast – he was a scientist and a teacher, a Sherlockian and an avid reader of the Nero Wolfe books, an essayist and a humorist.
Asimov’s Shakespeare (if I may call it that) is a doorstop of a book at some 1500 pages, and I have read each of them with delight. Asimov makes it immediately clear what he is not trying to do:
It is not my intention to discuss the literary values of the plays, or to analyze them from a theatrical, philosophical, or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in that direction.
Could that be false modesty? The fact is that there are theatrical, philosophical, and psychological insights in the book, but they are by-products. My guess is that what might appear to be modesty is really accuracy, and as it happens, accuracy is a major theme of the book. Here is Asimov’s intention:
What I can do, however, is to go over each of the thirty-eight plays and two narrative poems written by Shakespeare in his quarter century of literary life, and explain, as I go along, the historical, legendary, and mythological background.
This is exactly what he does. As a result, the book is an education in history, legend, and myth – also, to some extent, politics and religion – that is hard to equal.
Asimov, in his Introduction, tells how it took him a while to decide in what order to present the plays. There are a number of possible choices. The First Folio edition (1623), for example, lists the plays in the following order:
Many other editions follow this pattern. Like any ordering, it presents problems: for example, is Troilus and Cressida really a tragedy, or is it really a comedy – or a bitter satire, in a genre of its own? Another possible way of sequencing the plays is to present them in the order they were first performed, as well as that can be determined – but again, there are numerous problems in that solution, since there’s so much we don’t know about the productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
Asimov won my heart immediately with his solution:
I divide the plays into four broad groups: Greek, Roman, Italian, and English. . . . [Within these groups] I have decided to place the plays in the chronological order of . . . historical events as much as possible.
This elegant solution does contain problems of its own: for example, what is the time period of King Lear? Are the events in The Merry Wives of Windsor supposed to take place before, during, or after the events in Henry IV, Parts One and Two? Asimov makes best guesses, shrugs, and moves on. His system of ordering proves to be effective and sometimes revelatory.
Similarly, he does not get bogged down in the immediately evident fact that Shakespeare cares very little, even when his sources are correct, about the historical accuracy of details. Asimov points instances out; notes that they don’t interfere with our enjoyment of the plays, or with our understanding of the points Shakespeare is trying to make; and, again, moves on.
For example, in the chapter on Henry IV, Part One, he notes that, despite Shakespeare’s presentation of the rivalry between young Prince Hal and young Hotspur, there was actually a twenty year difference in their ages – Hotspur was not only senior to Hal, but basically a middle aged man. But
. . . however much they made a kind of father-and-son pair in history, they make a brother-and-brother pair in Shakespeare, and so effective is this play under the lash of Shakespeare’s transcendent genius, that history is forever thrust out of the arena.
Shakespeare has immortalized the rakehell Prince as he has immortalized the gallant young Hotspur, and no possible debunking in this book or any other can wipe out the Shakespearean picture and replace it with what is, after all, merely truth.
Later, discussing Henry IV, Part Two, he summarizes a part of the play’s narrative:
In a second single combat, young Richard kills Somerset in the streets of St. Albans.
Now, Somerset was indeed killed in the battle, but despite Shakespeare, not every death in battle is the result of single combat between balanced foes. Exactly who killed Somerset is not known, but one thing is known: it was not young Richard. At the time of the Battle of St. Albans, Richard was just three years old and the amount of fighting he could do was strictly limited.
As these quotations illustrate, Asimov is a genial and tolerant observer. He never loses sight of Shakespeare’s greatness, but his purpose is to relate allusions to their sources, and in numerous cases Shakespeare adapts his sources for his own purposes, regardless of their historical appropriateness, or the time periods in which they were supposed to have occurred.
Although Asimov has no intention of writing a biography, as the book progresses, certain characteristics of Shakespeare the writer seem to become clearer.
We see that certain passages in the works raise the possibility of homosexual leanings; how much more can be said about that is not clear. We also see that Shakespeare is, in matters of science, thoroughly Medieval in his outlook.
We see that he has a strong anti-war, if not pacific, streak, undercutting even the most jingoistic passages with tragic and realistic glimpses of the effects of war.
We see that he has no intention of offending the powerful personages of his time, and adjusts his plots accordingly. We see that he senses what the less elevated elements of his audience are likely to enjoy, and that he includes for their benefits some less than elevated passages, a few of which make us wince today. We see that he hates to revise and rewrite.
And we see that at the top of his game, Shakespeare is unbeatable in his understanding of human nature. He is not always inspired; but he is always interesting, and now and then he is overwhelming.
I will certainly keep this book close at hand whenever I’m reading or working on Shakespeare’s plays. 1500 pages is a lot to absorb; re-reading this book now and then, and taking in more of the countless facts that Asimov provides, will be a pleasure.