Interpreting Shakespeare

Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, by Stanley Wells, (Oxford University Press), 288 pages, release date 23 June, 2015

Stanley Wells’ Great Shakespeare Actors is a wonderful read for fans of theatre, literature, and history. Besides providing us with descriptions of some of history’s great actors at work, Wells gives readers a sense of the evolving understanding of Shakespeare’s works and of actors’ interpretations of them: “There is, we might say, no such thing as a play: there are only scripts which come to life in different ways each time they are performed.”

Wells is working with challenging material. We have very little documentary evidence regarding early performers of the plays, sometimes a single painting, sometimes not even that. He provides illustrations wherever possible, and the number of these increase as the book progresses.

Wells looks at the types of roles these early actors were known for and at first-person accounts of viewing plays in order to attempt a written portrait of their work. For example, given their differences as texts, it’s likely the roles of Falstaff and Macbeth’s porter were written for different actors: the first a clown (perhaps the era’s Will Ferrell); the second a much darker sort of comic (maybe a Lewis Black).

Wells also moves us from the era of men-only acting to today’s gender-inclusive theatre, and he pays attention to male roles mastered by women (Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, for instance), as well as the historical use of boys to play female characters. Why do so many of Shakespeare’s female characters find themselves in situations that require cross-dressing? For the plot, yes, but also to get boy actors out of skirts whenever possible.

Given that Great Shakespeare Actors is a static text attempting to depict a highly plastic medium, at times the reader will have difficulty “seeing” what Wells sees as he writes. Nonetheless, the specificity of Wells’ writing brings to life performances that remain almost undocumented.


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