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Anecdotal Shakespeare

Paul Menzer
The Arden Shakespeare

Anecdotal Shakespeare

Despite choosing a topic that seems unlikely material for a good read, Paul Menzer has managed to pen a volume that can be appreciated by the general reader as well as academics.

It should be emphasised that this is not merely a list of theatrical anecdotes. The author is an academic and has carried out considerable research to present detailed analysis of anecdotes surrounding five of Shakespeare's most high-profile plays.

After a hiccup on page 1 where the usually meticulous Menzer has managed to get Binkie Beaumont's name wrong, he starts with an introductory chapter to warm up the readers.

It is quickly apparent that this is a distinctly unorthodox volume. At various times, it reads like a joke book, a series of tall stories and a postgraduate thesis turned into a commercial tome.

The main thesis that Mr Menzer goes to considerable lengths to prove is that anecdotes grow organically out of the plays to which they are attached. Rather than being random statements, he is firmly of the belief that they have a close relationship with the plays and, at times, might even feed and enhance an understanding of the original works.

The heart of the book relies on Mr Menzer's terrier-like desire to work away at often-repeated theatrical anecdotes in the attempt to get to their sources or to find every known example.

The main chapters cover Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Macbeth.

The writing is always light, helped by the author's love of humourous quips and particularly puns that are generously littered across the text.

There is however some serious critical analysis at work underneath the jokiness. Along the way, readers will learn a considerable amount about the Shakespearean canon and many of the most significant actors who have taken the major roles across the years.

They will also discover that the age-old curse of Macbeth probably only started in about 1937, which will probably be as much of a surprise to contemporary actors as it is to their audiences.

There are a number of different anecdotes for each of the key plays. In general, a single starting point forms the bulk of each chapter. With Hamlet it is the skull, with Othello the actor’s transferable make up, while Romeo and Juliet suffer age issues and in Richard III the main focus is the close relationship between the character and actors portraying him.

Menzer then expands and seeks other popular anecdotes to prove some of his own hypotheses and shed light on unofficial Shakespearean lore.

Anyone looking for a quirky but enjoyable skate around the Shakespearean outposts could do a lot worse than invest in a copy.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher