On the Page: Shakespeare Edition

living with shakespeareLiving with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors

Edited by Susannah Carson

Vintage, 528 pp., $16

It should come as no surprise that the best essays in Living With Shakespeare are by the writers, not the actors and directors listed in its subtitle. Overall, though, this 500-page collection left me unfulfilled: about a quarter of the way in, I found myself craving the real thing. Why am I getting Shakespeare secondhand, I thought, when I can just go straight to the source?

I guess that means the book, edited by Susannah Carson, did its job. Living With Shakespeare is supposed to whet your appetite; it wants you to see how much its 38 contributors—Jane Smiley, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley among them—care about the Bard so you can strike off and form your own bond with him. A lot of the essays, however, feel too exegetical, impersonal. James Earl Jones’s contribution, for instance, starts out promisingly but veers off into a nearly 40-page analysis of Othello that probably would have been better handled by a scholar like Harold Bloom, who wrote the book’s foreword. Living With Shakespeare takes a populist approach to the Bard; at the same time, most of its contributors—the actors especially, including James Franco (of course)—take themselves too seriously.

One short passage from this book stuck with me. It comes from Germaine Greer, on studying Shakespeare in school: “It never occurred to me,” she writes, “to read about Shakespeare. If I was curious about something, about how Shakespeare felt about war, say, I simply read the plays again.”