30 Great Myths about Shakespeare
January 2013, Wiley-Blackwell
Was a real skull used in the first performance of Hamlet? Were Shakespeare's plays Elizabethan blockbusters? How much do we really know about the playwright's life? And what of his notorious relationship with his wife? Exploring and exploding 30 popular myths about the great playwright, this illuminating new book evaluates all the evidence to show how historical material—or its absence—can be interpreted and misinterpreted, and what this reveals about our own personal investment in the stories we tell.
Myth 1 Shakespeare was the most popular writer of his time 6
Myth 2 Shakespeare was not well educated 11
Myth 3 Shakespeare’s plays should be performed in Elizabethan dress 18
Myth 4 Shakespeare was not interested in having his plays printed 26
Myth 5 Shakespeare never traveled 34
Myth 6 Shakespeare’s plays are politically incorrect 40
Myth 7 Shakespeare was a Catholic 47
Myth 8 Shakespeare’s plays had no scenery 54
Myth 9 Shakespeare’s tragedies are more serious than his comedies 60
Myth 10 Shakespeare hated his wife 66
Myth 11 Shakespeare wrote in the rhythms of everyday speech 72
Myth 12 Hamlet was named after Shakespeare’s son 80
Myth 13 The coarse bits of Shakespeare are for the groundlings; the philosophy is for the upper classes 86
Myth 14 Shakespeare was a Stratford playwright 94
Myth 15 Shakespeare was a plagiarist 99
Myth 16 We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life 106
Myth 17 Shakespeare wrote alone 113
Myth 18 Shakespeare’s sonnets are autobiographical 119
Myth 19 If Shakespeare were writing now, he’d be writing
Myth 20 The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage 130
Myth 21 Shakespeare had a huge vocabulary 137
Myth 22 Shakespeare’s plays are timeless 143
Myth 23 Macbeth is jinxed in the theater 150
Myth 24 Shakespeare did not revise his plays 156
Myth 25 Boy actors played women’s roles 163
Myth 26 Shakespeare’s plays don’t work as movies 169
Myth 27 Yorick’s skull was real 175
Myth 28 Queen Elizabeth loved Shakespeare’s plays 183
Myth 29 Shakespeare’s characters are like real people 190
Myth 30 Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare 196
Further Reading 207
Laurie Maguire is Professor of English at the University of Oxford, tutorial fellow at Magdalen College, and the author or editor of seven books. She is a regular theater reviewer for the TLS and has lectured widely across the UK and the USA.
Emma Smith is tutorial fellow at Hertford College, Oxford. She is the author or editor of six books, a regular reviewer for the TLS, and has lectured widely across the UK and the USA.
The authors have previously collaborated together on articles on Middleton and Shakespeare and on graduate courses at the University of Oxford.
"Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith's 30 Great Myths About
Shakespeare is a thought-provoking myth-buster ... It
entertains the reader with new material and detective-like
connections ... A huge amount of research, work and selection lies
behind this book, and it pays off. Not just students, but every
academic should take note." (Times Literary Supplement, 29
"Lively, enjoyable and sensible throughout." (London Review of Books, 5 December 2013)
"The myth that Macbeth is jinxed in the theatre, is, says Maguire, a 'self-fulfilling prophecy based on a hoax.' And so it is, and delightfully so, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why." (Irish Examiner, 5 June 2013).
"This is a good book by trustworthy Shakespeareans ... The
individual myths, structured into moderate-length essays (thus you
do not have to read them in order), can be excellent for
discussions in the classroom or lecture-room. Though the book
obviously targets readership already into Shakespeare, every novice
will enjoy finding satisfactory answers to the myths they are
bothered with." (Huffington Post, 24 April 2013)
"The value of this little book lies in its ceaseless exploration." (Times Higher Education, 7 March 2013)
"Even if you know Shakespeare well, this delightful book will offer thought-provoking new angles." (The Scotsman, 2 March 2013)
"A book that manages the rare feat of exercising scholarly caution...while still providing a highly entertaining portrait of the man himself." (Sunday Times, 24 February 2013)
“Learned and enjoyable (that rarest of combinations), 30 Great Myths is a brilliant exploration of the truth behind popular assumptions about Shakespeare. Some of these myths turn out to be true, some false and some impossible to be decisive about. But these mini-essays are always at once fascinating, provoking and fun.”—Peter Holland, University of Notre Dame
“This is a fresh, learned, thoughtful and generous-spirited review of the more-or-less received ideas we so often invoke when we talk about Shakespeare. Written with wit and verve by two outstanding experts in the field, it will entertain and inform experienced readers and playgoers as well as those approaching the plays and poems for the first time.”—Russell Jackson, University of Birmingham
“30 Great Myths About Shakespeare is superb. Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith have written an incisive, witty, and open-minded book, one that uses popular myths as a point of entry into the profound and vexing questions raised by Shakespeare’s art. Scholars, actors, and general readers will find themselves in their debt.”—James Shapiro, Columbia University
Despite being a household name for the best part of 450+ years, Shakespeare is still, very much, a man of mystery. Theories and compelling arguments may tell us he was uneducated, that he never set out to have his plays printed or that he hated his wife, but how do we know what is the truth? Armed with a set of legend-busting tools, Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith have selected thirty myths that have reached proverbial status and set out to explore and explode the truth behind the popular assumptions...
Was a real skull used in the first performances of Hamlet? Were Shakespeare's plays really Elizabethan blockbusters?
As Maguire and Smith demonstrate in 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare, it's nigh on impossible for us to really know the answers to questions such as these. And so they seek to steer the reader away from the well-known and often-repeated ideas about the man and his plays and, instead, equip us with the tools to assess the worthiness or the shortcomings of the historical material - or lack of it - provided, consider the impact of our personal opinions, and to think again about what has become familiar. With each myth investigated as self-contained story and presented in a clear and concise manner, kept short to focus the mind, the authors also include comparisons between attitudes of the day and present day culture, draw on previous biographies as well as Shakespeare's own work and take a look at the overall appeal of myths and why, as far as Shakespeare's concerned, they are just so plentiful!
A fresh, thoughtful and open-minded book that is written with wit and verve throughout, 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare is a must for anyone who thinks they know Shakespeare. Have a read and think again...