All the world’s a stage

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Peter Con­rad on Shake­speare

his 20 books pub­lished since 1973, Peter Con­rad has led read­ers to in­sights they could hardly have stum­bled across on their own, whether the mat­ter is lit­er­a­ture, his­tory, movies, opera, mythol­ogy, or a host of other top­ics. In Shake­speare: The The­atre of Our World, he turns his ra­zor-sharp fo­cus on the Bard and, pre­dictably, leaves his read­ers daz­zled, ex­hausted, and en­riched.

Con­rad, who re­tired in 2018 af­ter 45 years of teach­ing at Christ Church, Ox­ford, of­fers an en­cy­clo­pe­dic yet per­sonal med­i­ta­tion on Shake­speare. He is vir­tu­osic in his schol­ar­ship, yet his pre­sen­ta­tion is free from the lethargy that in­fects so much aca­demic writ­ing. Hav­ing thor­oughly di­gested all of Shake­speare’s plays, he re­dis­tributes their ideas into chap­ters that ru­mi­nate broadly on nine sub­jects, from I “So Long Lives This,” about how the play­wright was char­ac­ter­ized in his time and in pos­ter­ity, to “And This Gives Life to Thee,” which mostly deals with view­points of spe­cific pro­duc­tions and how cur­rent so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues in­form pre­sen­ta­tions as re­cent as the New York Shake­speare Fes­ti­val’s 2017

which “pre­sented Rome’s would-be despot as an orange-maned vul­gar­ian who rants on Twit­ter.”

Most of the book pen­e­trates the texts them­selves and how they re­veal a mul­ti­fac­eted con­cep­tion of the world and its oc­cu­pants. Con­rad, one might say, charts a road map of Shake­speare’s brain, where the neu­rons buzz apace. What is the world? “Shake­speare, like Puck, en­gir­dles the earth: his the­atre is global by both name and na­ture,” he writes. What is man? A piece of work noble in rea­son, in­fi­nite in fac­ulty, the paragon of an­i­mals, the quin­tes­sence of dust, ac­cord­ing to Ham­let, but also an un­fin­ished be­ing, seek­ing com­ple­tion in com­ple­men­tary selves — like An­tipho­lus, half of a set of sep­a­rated twins in

who “first com­pares him­self to ‘a drop of wa­ter/That in the ocean seeks an­other drop.’ ”

Dual­ity and para­dox are every­where in Shake­speare: two char­ac­ters per­ceived to be one (as in

or the sep­a­rated sib­lings of or one per­ceived to be two (dis­guises abound, of­ten in­volv­ing gen­der swaps and cross-dressing) — or, for that mat­ter, through the mash-up of dra­matic gen­res, as when the Rude Me­chan­i­cals in

of­fer a play de­scribed as “very trag­i­cal mirth.” Shake­speare’s de­lin­eation of char­ac­ters is

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