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Anecdotal Shakespeare:
A New Performance History,
by Paul Menzer.
Bloomsbury: London, 2015. Pp. 253.

Reviewer: Dr. John Henry Adams,
Arizona State University

(June 2016 Issue / PDF)

With Anecdotal Shakespeare, Paul Menzer offers an alternative take on theatre history by focusing not on the archive of historical documents surrounding the theatre but on the anecdotes and jokes told about the plays staged there.  The most enduring anecdotes are interesting not as factually true accounts of a given performance — Menzer traces one anecdote through 250 years with a dozen different actors — but as vehicles of cultural meaning (6).  Menzer suggests that anecdotes act as a kind of literary criticism, drawing attention to underlying thematic concerns inherent to the plays they describe.  Menzer takes his readers through an engaging tour of the anecdotes associated with five of Shakespeare’s most canonical tragedies and ably highlights what those anecdotes tell us both about the reception of those plays specifically and the theatre’s concerns more generally.

One of the great strengths of the book is its readability even as it grapples with theoretical problems: Menzer repeatedly demonstrates a great love of the English language, cheerfully mixing puns and humorous asides with his theorizing of performance history.  The book shifts easily between anecdotes and theoretical concerns in order to examine the cultural work that anecdotes about and around the theater do.  The amount of things that theatre-goers say about a play or a performance easily dwarfs the amount of material actually contained within the play-text and Menzer suggests that this mass of possible observations carries with it critical insight into thematic concerns as well as opportunities for humor at the expense of the actors.  The book’s intertextual approach to performance history also bears opportunities for discussions about the role that archives may play in our assessment of the theatre in particular and literature more broadly.

Each of the book’s five chapters focuses on anecdotes surrounding a particular Shakespearean tragedy.  Chapter 1, “Hamlet: Skulls are good to think with,” focuses on anecdotes relating to Yorick’s skull and the Ghost.  Both the skull and the Ghost highlight the “the unrealistic demands the play makes on the players” (Menzer 58), expecting them to vanish into their roles.  The appeal of such stories, Menzer argues, lies in the way that they disrupt the tragic dimensions of the play to consider the comedy inherent in desiring actors to perform so well that they are forgotten.

Chapter 2, “Othello: The smudge,” also deals with actors vanishing into their roles: it is concerned with blackface and how worries about Othello’s makeup rubbing off and staining Desdemona parallel the play’s worries about racial miscegenation.  The freakishness of Othello — and the fear that he will contaminate others with either his racial characteristics or his stage makeup — comes out in anecdotes that highlight underlying fears with respect to the racial Other.

Whereas the first two chapters deal with characters vanishing into their roles, Chapter 3, “Romeo and Juliet: Central casting,” is concerned with the disconnect between actor and role.  It addresses the discordant relationship between the love story as presented in the play and the physical bodies of the actors playing the roles.  The problematic rebellion depicted in the love story is reinforced by frequent age discrepancies between the actors, highlighting the degree to which performances are at odds with their subject matter.  Anecdotes about romances that blossom on set invariably have to gloss over the play’s tragic ending and attempt to manufacture a comedy out of it.

Chapter 4, “Richard III: Oedipus text,” similarly asks what happens in the space between actor and role and thinks through the ways in which actors may come into conflict with the author, the audience, or other actors.  Whether constrained by the text or by the props associated with a previous performance, the anecdotes around Richard III characterize the theatre as haunted by intertexts.

Finally, Chapter 5, “Macbeth: An embarrassment of witches,” is presented in a response to the superstitions that have arisen around the play, almost certainly during the twentieth century.  Menzer suggests that the play’s anecdotes, taken out of the context of the curse, focus on the illusion of the theatre, as most of the supposedly supernatural events in the play turn out to be eminently material, rational events.  Anecdotes of the curse remind us of the artificiality of the stage, a theme that the play itself takes up with its systematic subversion of the supposedly wondrous.

Pedagogically, Anecdotal Shakespeare seems best suited for either an advanced undergraduate or a graduate seminar: Menzer assumes an easy familiarity with the methodology of new historicism and recent studies in theatre history on the part of the reader.  The book seems most useful for a theoretically informed class on performance, though individual chapters may be of interest on their own and, as Menzer himself observes, the book is fairly modular in its design and the chapters are at least partially self-contained (xviii).  A class dealing with the performance history of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, or Macbeth, for instance, would benefit from the introduction and requisite chapter alongside the play in question.  Overall, Anecdotal Shakespeare seems an especially good fit for classes on performance, literary theory, and archival methodology.

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