Stanley Wells is Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. His two new books, Great Shakespeare Actors: From Burbage to Branagh and William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction, are to be published in June and September of this year. (March 2015)

Shakespeare and the Struggle for Power

John Gielgud in Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1938
The twin stars of Garry Wills’s immensely well-informed and wide-ranging book are Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, but it also boasts a glittering supporting cast of courtiers, poets, statesmen, and playwrights other than Shakespeare. The theatrical metaphor is inevitable because of the resemblances in the Elizabethan Age between the …

In the Court of a Monster

An eighteenth-century portrait of Anne Boleyn, by an unknown artist
The title of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, we learn late in the narrative, is a legal phrase, the command to court officials instructing them to deliver to their trial men who, because they are accused of treason, are regarded as already dead: “The order goes to the Tower, …

‘O Rare Ben Jonson’

Sir Walter Ralegh and his son, Walter, 1602; artist unknown
On August 17, 1637, the corpse of a man was buried in Westminster Abbey, with impressive ceremony. It was the corpse of no ordinary man, and it was no ordinary burial. For some reason—possibly the danger of overcrowding a hallowed space—the coffined corpse was lowered into the ground vertically, not …

Taking Random House for a Shakespearean Ride

Stanley Wells unveiling a newly identified portrait of Shakespeare, the only one thought to have been painted during his lifetime, London, March 9, 2009
In offering a novel that incorporates an entire five-act tragedy purporting to have been written by Shakespeare, complete with scholarly annotations, Arthur Phillips is writing in a tradition of Shakespearean imitation, parody, burlesque, and travesty that extends back to the playwright’s own time. To give but a few examples, Shakespeare’s …

Plotting Against the Stratford Man

The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, circa 1610. According to James Shapiro in Contested Will, when Freud saw this portrait in London in 1908, he thought that the face looked ‘completely un-English’ and ‘began to suspect that Shakespeare was of Fr
James Shapiro declares in the opening sentence of the prologue to his cleverly titled book that it is “about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn’t write them, who did.” Shapiro starts with news of …

The Greatest Actress of Her Age

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth; portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1889, from Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History
With a fitting touch of drama, even melodrama, Michael Holroyd opens his composite biography with the death by suicide, at the age of twenty-one, of one of its two most important characters. One night in 1868, after the London theaters had closed, the actress Ellen Terry’s family found in her …

Mistress Shakespeare

It is now over two hundred years since the discovery of a love letter written by William Shakespeare to his future bride, Ann (or Anne, or even Agnes) Hathaway. Along with it came a silk-tied lock of the poet’s hair and verses bearing eloquent testimony to his love: Is there …