This Is Shakespeare

Emma Smith. Pantheon, $28.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4854-8

Smith (Shakespeare’s First Folio), Oxford professor of Shakespeare studies, combines contemporary wit and verve with scholarly rigor to produce a refreshingly entertaining study of the Bard’s plays. Smith aims to introduce “a Shakespeare you could have a drink and a good conversation with” and isn’t afraid to deploy pop-culture references—such as comparing Falstaff to Homer Simpson—to achieve her goal. The effect isn’t to diminish the literary genius behind the 20 plays she examines but to open and explore the gaps Shakespeare left in each of his works. Smith begins with The Taming of the Shrew’s controversial treatment of gender relations. To show that the play’s ambiguities—its title character can be seen either as “feisty and independent... or strident and antisocial”—aren’t just the result of changing attitudes, Smith draws comparisons to more straightforward works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, demonstrating that the play challenged audiences from the very start. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, often adapted to serve as children’s introduction to Shakespeare, is revealed as a “darker, sexier play,” in which animal desires collide against marital strictures. While a familiarity with the plays is expected, literary jargon is kept to a minimum. Entertaining and sagacious, this work will spur readers who gave up on Shakespeare on first pass to approach his oeuvre with new eyes. (Apr.)