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Mr. Williams’s Shakespeare

Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe
By Frayne Williams
New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. 596 pages. $5.

The biographical part of this book will not disappoint the imaginary not-too-bright giant for whom blurbs are fattened and human interest lavishly spread. Surely, there must be something very attractive in the illusion Mr. Frayne Williams tries hard to keep up, namely, that environment can be made to influence a poet once it is neatly deduced from his works. “No poet,” he says, “can be comprehended without estimating his attitude toward marriage.” How very true! Let us peruse the sonnets Bluebeard composed. Let us listen to the giggles and slamming doors in the dormitories of time where mighty footsteps echo. Let us believe Mr. Williams when he asserts that Shakespeare “in his mother’s description of her family and friends was later to find much that would help him in the depiction of gentle womanhood.” The method by which the author reaches this happy conclusion is very simple: first he suggests that Shakespeare made Volumnia out of his mother, then the process is reversed and Mary Arden is described as a Roman matron. No wonder it all fits so well.

We are also asked to take for granted “young Shakespeare’s bewilderment when he learned that he, a somewhat carefree youth [I like the ‘somewhat’], was about to become a father.” Similarly, automatic imagination working on “country girl” and easily turning red apples into ruddy cheeks makes Anne Hathaway a “sturdy country girl in good health”—though surely she might have been lean and hysterical, just as one meets now and then pale-faced butchers and forgetful elephants. “Whatever her limitations were,” says the author, “it must not be forgotten that she directly or inversely [’inversely’ is safer] helped to mold the genius of William Shakespeare.” And when her son died “by infection’s hand,” Anne “stood beside the grave with her successful husband”—though strictly speaking this was not quite the right moment for him to feel successful (“blue-eyed, gray-haired So-and-So’s headless corpse,” as I read somewhere the other day). Finally, it is interesting to learn that “it takes two to make a conversation and the same number to make love”—which fact, together with the second-best bed (“the most intimate monument of her life”), is about all we and the voluble author really know concerning that particular marriage.

Perseverance, however, will take the reader through to that other part where Mr. Williams discusses Shakespeare discoveries and the staging of his plays. Here the style improves considerably and the author turns out to be an intelligent critic. He is especially good in his account of the mutilation Shakespeare suffered and suffers still at the hands of actors and showmen: the powdered perversions of the eighteenth century and the purple violations of the nineteenth; the accumulation of dead theatrical tradition; and the horrors of our own time: stunt performances, the weird orgies of stage electricians, the step-by-step-and-platform complex, mystical backgrounds, open-air foolery, the criminal cutting of the best bits, the reshuffling of scenes and the platitudes of sociological suggestion.

I was disappointed not to find in “Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe” something which the pun in the title seemed to promise—a survey of his influence in other countries—Voltaire’s version of “Hamlet,” “King Lear” as staged in Tsarevokokshaisk and certain solemn researches of German scholars might afford more genuine fun and human interest than Shakespeare’s filial affection or the hounding of masked W. H. and a disheveled brunette through he trimmed hedges of the Sonnets.