In This Is Shakespeare (Pantheon, Apr.), Smith argues there’s no one way to read the Bard.
You write that a lot of what people think about Shakespeare isn’t true. What are some of those things?
There are all kinds of things that people get taught about Shakespeare that suggest that the plays are somehow beyond them. Things like “you need a lot of historical information to make sense of these plays” or “you need a lot of background.” Schools are mad about iambic pentameter. And there’s the sense that to watch a movie of Shakespeare is somehow cheating, which isn’t true at all. Those are the things that I want to get away from.
How do the plays remain relevant today?
The plays leave out lots of descriptions and instructions. Mostly all we’ve got are just the words the characters say. These gaps offer space for us to take part in the plays, in their meaning, and make our own sense of them. That’s why the plays are alive and that’s why we’re still interested in them. We’re not trying to get back to what they meant around 1600. What we’re trying to say is what they mean for the 21st century.
Which play challenges you the most?
I’m currently thinking a lot about Twelfth Night. I suddenly see Viola, the cross-dressing character, in light of transgender narratives that even 10 years ago weren’t as visible to me. At the end of the play, Viola’s twin brother uses her birth name for the first time, revealing her identity. I used to think this was a completely wonderful moment of recognition. Then I started to think about what trans people have taught us about “deadnaming,” when someone from the past can’t let go of your birth name. Then it’s a very different moment. Neither is right but they’re both possible.
Some have questioned your use of pop cultural references to explore the plays—using the phrase “bros before hos” in relation to Much Ado About Nothing comes to mind.
I got that from American students that I’ve taught! That’s not a British saying at all. There’s a lot of assumptions about what’s an appropriate way to write about Shakespeare. I think sometimes that kind of reverence stops us from really enjoying it. Shakespeare is full of bawdy jokes. That man cannot resist a joke, a pun,
a bawdy reference. He’s not a pious, po-faced writer at all. It doesn’t do him a favor to treat him in that reverential way.