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Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to…
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Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the… (1970 original; edició 1978)

de Isaac Asimov (Autor)

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Examines the historical, geographical, and mythological background of the plays and two narrative poems.
Membre:knittingashley
Títol:Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare
Autors:Isaac Asimov (Autor)
Informació:Avenel (2003), Edition: Reissue, 1536 pages
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca
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Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare de Isaac Asimov (1970)

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I don't know if this is the decades-old version I have checked out from the library right now, but I'm assuming it's close enough. Holy cow. I've only read about 30 pages into the Julius Caesar portion, but I MUST buy this book. I do believe I have feigned reading Shakespeare until now. Holy cow. Silly me--I thought Asimov was just a Sci-Fi guy.

------
I bought this book. ( )
  LibroLindsay | Jun 18, 2021 |
It is not my intention to discuss the literary values of the plays, or to analyze them from a theatrical, philosophical, or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in that direction. [..] What I can do, however, is to go over each of the thirty-eight plays and two narrative poems written by Shakespeare in his quarter century of literary life, and explain, as I go along, the historical, legendary, and mythological background.


in "Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare" by Isaac Asimov

Read the rest on my blog, if you like. ( )
  antao | Dec 10, 2016 |
It proves that he couldn't only write good and solid SF, but he was also an astounding expert on Shakespeare. I'm trying to get my hands on the digital version of these books, but to no avail. Still, it's still one of my personal references on Shakespeare on paper (along with Shakespeare After All" by Marjorie Garber - this one I've got in digital form...)." ( )
  antao | Dec 10, 2016 |
Isaac Asimov

Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare

Avenel, Hardback, 1978.

8vo. xiv+670+843 pp. 2 vols. in one. Introduction by the author [vii-x]. Indexes to both volumes [pp. 793-843]. Illustrated by Rafael Palacios with 40 maps and 16 charts.

First published in 2 vols., 1970.

Contents

Vol. 1: The Greek, Roman, and Italian plays.

Part I. Greek
1. Venus and Adonis
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
3. The Two Noble Kinsmen
4. Troilus and Cressida
5. Timon of Athens
6. The Winter's Tale
7. The Comedy of Errors
8. Pericles

Part II. Roman
9. The Rape of Lucrece
10. Coriolanus
11. Julius Caesar
12. Antony and Cleopatra
13. Titus Andronicus

Part III. Italian
14. Love's Labor's Lost
15. The Taming of the Shrew
16. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
17. Romeo and Juliet
18. The Merchant of Venice
19. Much Ado about Nothing
20. As You Like It
21. Twelfth Night
22. All's Well That Ends Well
23. Othello
24. Measure for Measure
25. The tempest

Vol. 2: The English Plays.

Part IV. English
26. King Lear
27. Cymbeline
28. Hamlet
29. Macbeth
30. King John
31. Richard II
32. Henry IV, part one
33. Henry IV, part two
34. The Merry Wives of Windsor
35. Henry V
36. Henry VI, part one
37. Henry VI, part two
38. Henry VI, part three
39. Richard III
40. Henry VIII

Index

=================================

[NB. Of course I have not read this book complete. In fact, I am familiar only with a small fraction of it, the chapters about the plays I have read myself: The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Richard III. (Spoilers ahead!) So the desultory notes below are based on a very limited experience, both with Asimov and with Shakespeare. I have resisted the temptation of reading about plays I have not read yet myself. To quote Somerset Maugham as usual: I have a certain confidence in my instinct.]

Arthur Clarke used to joke a lot, with good humour and perhaps a touch of envy, about Isaac Asimov's simply unbelievable productivity and versatility. My greatest favourite in this "genre" is that Asimov, far from being a man, was actually a robot who can write four books at a time, two with his two hands and two with his two legs, and that his vast bibliography includes such gems like Asimov's Guide to Cricket (a sport Arthur disliked) and an ''illustrated braille Kama Sutra''.*

Seriously, leaving aside for the moment his science fiction (of which I haven’t read a single word anyway), browsing the list of Asimov's non-fiction books in ISFDB is a dizzying experience. There are volumes on biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, history, literature, writing, reading, anything. Isaac, apparently, was the closest approximation to a Walking Wikipedia in the pre-Internet times. And the list in ISFDB isn't complete at all. At least one of Asimov's gigantic books, originally published in two volumes and later reprinted in one, is not even mentioned: Asimov's Guide to the Bible (1968). Another such "door-stopping" book is, of course, this one.

When discussing Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, it is very important to remember that this is a book written by a single man, and a man, moreover, who was a scientist by education and a science fiction writer by vocation. It's equally essential to keep in mind the purpose of the volume as stated by the author. These two "tiny" details go a long way - though not all the way - to explain some at first sight grave defects. In his Introduction, Asimov writes:

This is not to say that one cannot enjoy Shakespeare without knowing the historical, legendary, or mythological background to the events in the plays. There is still the great poetry and the deathless swing of his writing. And yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing is about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment.

This is what it is in my mind to do in this book.

It is not my intention to discuss the literary value of the plays, or to analyse them from a theatrical, philosophical or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in this direction.


Isaac is being mischievous here. To be sure, his main subject is the extensive historical background and the numerous mythological references. But more often than not he dabbles in each of the three aspects that are "not his intention to discuss". The psychological dimensions, especially in some of the more complex plays (e.g. Hamlet), often take the upper hand over history and mythology. Philosophical and theatrical questions are fairly seldom referred to, but they are by no means completely neglected. This is inevitable, of course. If Isaac had stuck closely to his intention, a very limited one, he would have produced a dull and nearly worthless book. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, whatever sci-fi buffs or literary scholars may tell you, is neither.

Asimov's approach is simple and effective. He takes each work of Shakespeare - altogether 38 plays, including two collaborations, and two narrative poems, the sonnets are excluded - and goes through it from beginning to end, narrating the plot in detail, quoting a number of relevant lines and explaining all significant allusions. Keep in mind, however, that Isaac’s way is by necessity highly selective. Some of your favourite lines may be skipped, and some of your favourite scenes may be discussed in a rather perfunctory fashion, or not at all. The numerous quotes from the plays come from The Complete Signet Shakespeare edition** and are meticulously sourced (act, scene, line); archaic or obscure words are "translated" in square brackets on the spot.

The only thing I don't particularly like about the structure of the chapters is that they are separated into many sections by short quotations that contain some tricky phrase. This makes it easier if you're looking for the explanation of something specific, but sometimes it also makes the chapters fragmented and the orientation more difficult. No matter. The text is still easy to navigate, not the least because the short paragraphs allow you to do what Somerset Maugham advised all mature readers to do: skip. Yet Maugham himself was a bad skipper and so am I.

Asimov's writing style has a compelling simplicity and miraculous lucidity. Even in the middle of the most tangled plots, such as many a royal succession in the English history, he never loses his way. Besides, he writes with much humour and charm, making the book compulsively readable (it's one of those books that make nights look appallingly short) and completely excuses the fact that the author is strenuously opinionated. I also find Asimov's friendly tone very attractive. It is far removed from the condescending snobbery, not to mention the hideous obscurity, that often mars the writings of eminent Shakespearean scholars; as if you should feel privileged that they share their immense knowledge with imbeciles like you who would never understand the Bard anyway. Not for nothing do I so often address the author with his first name, a privilege normally reserved only for authors I am far more familiar with.

Isaac talks to you as an equal, as if you're sitting together, drinking coffee/martini/cuba libre/manhattan (choose, or add, according to taste) and sharing reading experiences. Yes, he might be a little more widely read than you are, and he certainly wrote a great deal more than you ever will, but he never harps on such matters. Last but not least, Asimov’s vocabulary is both devoid of pretentious garbage and very amusing without being flippant. For example, Juliet was a "pretty and plucky girl”, the historical Lady Macbeth had the "uncommonly uneuphonious name Gruoch", William the Bastard changed his name to “the much preferred one” of William the Conqueror, King Edward’s soldiers got “uproariously drunk”, Richard III was “unhorsed”, and many other such delicious gems enliven the pages.

The major fault of the book is that much of the historical background is simply useless. I love history. I do think reading more of it can improve your personality. But I don't see how it can improve your appreciation of historical fiction. Nor can it be denied that sometimes Isaac is concerned with trifles of no consequence or with fascinating trivia that is completely irrelevant. Who cares that Carthage and Tunis were not exactly the same place? So Gonzago from The Tempest got it wrong. Big deal! Why do you need an extensive account of the Battle of Lepanto in the end of Othello or a lot about witches and Scottish history in the beginning of Macbeth? Of course, you don't. The passage about the prowess of the Swiss soldiers through the centuries, from the Middle Ages all the way to the Swiss guard in the Vatican today, is absolutely compelling. But it is definitely annoying to have it inserted during one of the most heated moments of Hamlet merely because the King called his "Switzers". And yes, if the play is set in the eleventh century, Hamlet could not have attended the University in Wittenberg which was founded some five centuries later. And so on, and so forth. And there are times when Isaac is positively unfair to Shakespeare.

It is indeed a fearful example of the power of the pen to alter the truth itself if it is wielded with sufficient genius. There are many other examples in Shakespeare, with the case of Richard III perhaps even more pitiable than that of Macbeth.

Now here Isaac is being silly. Shakespeare was after poetic truth, not historical one. And he was after exciting stories and extremes of human behaviour. Of course he would compress the seventeen years of Macbeth's reign into five more or less continuous acts. And of course he would vilify the character of Richard if that suits his dramatic purposes. Of course he would take any liberties with his sources he thought necessary.

Too bad that many of Shakespeare's plays have become known as "histories" and some people, Asimov included, tend to regard Macbeth and Richard III as little more than Scottish and English history, respectively. Isaac is smart enough to recognise the dramatic reason for this manipulation of the "truth" but his harping constantly on it doesn't increase your understanding of the play. Claims that Shakespeare "wrongs" Lady Macbeth or Richard III or any other historical figure are absurd, and Isaac knows it. And this attitude, by the way, has nothing to do with the fact that history is a vastly inexact science that rests on conjecture. The writer of historical fiction - be it William Shakespeare or Dan Brown - has the right to manipulate the historical facts as much as he likes. He aims at great story and alive characters, not at accurate history and photographic portraits.

''Richard III'' is an almost painful chapter to read. Frankly, it makes me very uneasy about the other parts dedicated to the so-called ''histories''. It is fascinating to know that the real Richard, the most famous hunchback after Quasimodo and Rigoletto, was neither physically deformed nor the cruel monster from the Shakespeare's play. But Isaac’s harping on this every single page is, to put it mildly, extremely annoying – and tedious as well. Nor is it especially revealing about Shakespeare's dramatic genius as one might suppose. Apparently, during the Elizabethan era, there was a widespread fashion to blacken Richard as much as possible. So it is anything but clear how much of the distortion came from Shakespeare himself, how much from Holinshed's chronicles, how much from Thomas More's spurious ''biography'', and how much from other, unidentified, sources.

I may in passing note that Isaac at least has the common sense not to castigate Shakespeare for borrowing his plots. I am dismayed that some people still pontificate about that. As if it mattered! Like many other great story-tellers, Shakespeare came too late into a world too old. He lived but 400 years ago. The art of drama has existed for more than 2000. Of course he would borrow plot elements and even rip off complete stories from everywhere. And is the plot of such paramount importance anyway? By the same logic one can say that music is nothing but a string of borrowed notes. What really does matter is the elaboration. It is the pattern, not the substance, the manner and not the matter, that really matters. While walking on the street and whistling the ''Ode to Joy'', you might be tempted to exclaim mentally: ''What a trivial tune! Anybody could compose that!'' Quite true. But only Beethoven could elaborate on it as to produce the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Same with Shakespeare and his plots.

In plays based on historical events, sometimes vaguely (Hamlet) and sometimes more closely (Macbeth, Richard III), Asimov does, as already said, tend to overestimate the background and, correspondingly, underestimate Shakespeare’s imaginative treatment of it. It is completely unimportant that Richard probably did order the murder of two young princes (''alas'', sighs the crushed Isaac). The really important point is that this horrendous act marks the apogee of Richard’s villainy. What’s more, it probably marks also, as shrewdly remarked by Isaac too, the beginning of his mental disintegration. For Richard does have a conscience, and the murder of the two children seems to be more than it can bear. Richard III is a tremendous play, a brilliant study of unmitigated evil combined with irresistible charm. Who cares that its protagonist didn't really exist? Not I.

This misguided business of emphasising historical inaccuracy at the expense of a very fine fictional characterisation reminds me strongly of the endless searching of the real persons to whom fictional characters are presumably based. Have I read lots of such crap in biographies and critical studies of Maugham! Considering that Isaac is no artistically sterile scholar, much less a poor hack hungry for sensation, but a prolific and reportedly extremely successful writer of fiction himself, this is a most unexpected fault to find in him.

One thing that may improve your appreciation of Shakespeare is the relationship between his literary sources and his final products. But it must be stressed that this is something completely different than the foolish affair of mixing history with fiction, and something which Isaac, regretfully, addresses but seldom. He does have flashes of wisdom: few things convince me in Shakespeare’s dramatic genius better than to know that Mercutio was largely his own invention, bearing little relation to Marcuccio in Brooke’s poem that served as the basis for so much of Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, the lurid melodrama of one Cinthio (spelled Cynthius here) was profoundly changed by Shakespeare in order to fashion his Othello; Iago’s motivation was changed out of recognition, Roderigo was invented, etc. But this is a matter that Isaac remains silent about.

Sometimes Isaac can also be tremendously superficial, and one should be on one's guard with his descriptions of characters: "untainted by any form of earthiness or earth-bound humanity" is certainly a very inaccurate portrait of Ariel. Physically, he/she/it is inhuman enough, but psychologically he/she/it can be obsessed with quite human passions. That said, speaking of The Tempest, the chapter contains one of the few instances when Isaac grandly sets himself as an authority. Somehow he manages to achieve that without becoming obnoxious. The issue in question concerns the elusive relationship between Prospero’s farewell to his books and Shakespeare’s giving up writing for good:

This is, in my opinion, too sentimental an interpretation and I doubt it. For one thing, a compulsive writer like Shakespeare couldn’t deliberately plan to give up writing while he was capable of holding a pen – on this point I claim to be an authority. For another, he did continue to write in actual fact, engaging in two collaborations with Fletcher: Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The chapters – collections of extended footnotes really - also contain a great deal of charming trivia which, however, has lost its novelty since the rise of the Almighty Internet and its one and only prophet, Wikipedia. It is great to know that the word "lunatic" comes from the Latin word for "Moon", which fits nicely with some of Othello's words that when the Moon comes closer it makes men mad. It's cool to know that Othello himself is a Moor, not a black man, though to Elizabethan audiences this was the same thing, namely a barbarian; and that's why the inhabitants of North Africa are still known as ''Berbers''. It's also fascinating to learn that the title of Aldous Huxley's dystopian classic Brave New World (1932) comes from Miranda's naive exultation at the beauty of the human race in the end of The Tempest. (What does she, raised on a island on which the only other human being is her father, know of the human race!) All the same, the main problem with such bits of trivia is not that today it's much easier to obtain this knowledge than it was in 1970. The problem is that they are thoroughly inessential for a better understanding of Shakespeare's plays.

All that said, I have found Asimov's discussions of the plays I have read surprisingly enlightening. He tells me many things which I do want to know, but which the Penguin editors don't think worth elaborating upon. Much of the historical background is superfluous, certainly, but it is concisely written and a fun to read. As regards the intricacies of the Shakespearean plots and the characters, Isaac is often shattering enough to guarantee that my first post-Asimov reading of the play in question will be different than any previous reading. By no means do I always agree with him. But it's a most stimulating pleasure to disagree. In most cases I have curiously ambiguous feelings about Isaac's reflections – which is the best possible effect a great writer might have on the reader. Several examples will make it clear what I mean.

To begin with, the mythological references, much unlike the history behind the plays, are almost always revealing. And you can be sure Shakespeare is full of mythology; apparently the Elizabethan audiences were far better educated than modern ones. In his preface, Isaac mentions that modern Americans often have trouble with deciphering all those obscure allusions to ancient myths. It is safe to say that more than forty years later, and worldwide, the situation hasn't changed much; or if it has, it is not for the better.

It's difficult to choose examples of mythological allusions. There are tons of them. Hamlet, an educated fellow and a bit of philosopher himself, often mentions things like Hyperion, satyr, Hercules, Nioba, and many others. Macbeth, an ambitious general and no scholar at all, talks about Russian bears and Hyrcan tigers. It's wonderful to know the original contexts of these mysterious creatures. For example, since satyrs were sexually voracious, one can infer how Claudius might have convinced Gertrude to marry him in great haste, much to Hamlet's chagrin. Another beautiful thing about these allusions is that Isaac often notes cross-references with another plays. It is extraordinary to see, to take but one example, ''Phoebus'' mentioned by characters as different as Juliet and Cleopatra.

Even the historical background can occasionally be very important indeed. While reading Hamlet, I was constantly bothered by two questions. Why is the old Hamlet succeeded by his brother and not by his son? And why the Prince constantly insists on incestuous relationship between his mother and her brother-in-law when this is clearly impossible? Yet, if you set the play in Denmark of the eleventh century, it all makes perfect sense. Asimov tells us that in those times and in those lands it was by no means something extraordinary that the throne should be occupied by the brother of the deceased king; and marriage in those early Christian times was usually, if not always, regarded sacred enough to ensure incest between the in-law relatives. Isaac even mentions several ingenious parallels with the real history of Denmark, though he makes it clear that the origins of the play are largely legendary.

One possible explanation why Hamlet was not crowned a king, Asimov continues, is that he was not around; he was a student in Wittenberg at the time of his father's death. It must have taken some time for him to reach Elsinore, and during this time the dashing Claudius married his mother and barred his way to the throne. This status quo also makes a lot of sense of the King's request that Hamlet should stay in the court instead of going back to Wittenberg. Here in Elsinore he could be watched closely. Far away he can plot against Claudius in a far more dangerous way. For the fact that his uncle has become a king automatically means that Hamlet, the next throne pretender, is in mortal danger. Indeed, it is entirely possible, attaching some ironic overtones to the King’s lines in Act I, that Claudius is already thinking how to assassinate Hamlet. Little does he know that soon the Prince will think the same!

Of those chapters I have read so far, Asimov's treatment of Hamlet is one of the most controversial. But it will not do to dismiss his reflections as worthless. Never one to mince words, Isaac rejects any Oedipal interpretations of Hamlet's relationship with his mother, and bluntly states that it is "not unconscious love that explains his actions, but a very conscious and reasonable hate." Gertrude herself is dismissed as being "not very bright", shallow, egotistic and incapable of comprehending her son’s predicament. Asimov goes on, with an absolutely uncompromising pen, to suggest that her hasty marriage may have had a lot to do with Claudius being the more handsome, flattering and virile of the two brothers. The Ghost ludicrously describes his living self (the old Hamlet) as an ''angel'' while degrading the present King with gusto. This indicates a strong enmity between the brothers that was almost certainly there when both were alive; and one perfectly plausible reason is that Claudius was, to put it crudely, more spectacular in the bed.

As regards Hamlet, Isaac has another bombshell in store. The Prince of Denmark is a "fiery and impulsive individual who seems irresolute only to those who, in my opinion, miss the point of the play." Before crying out what nonsense this is, consider the following passage:

It isn't generally pointed out that Claudius' predicament in this play is exactly that of Hamlet. Hamlet wants to kill the King, but the King wants to kill Hamlet. Neither is save as long as the other is alive. But the King, as well as Hamlet, cannot take the simple road and simply kill. The King is but new on the throne and can scarcely yet feel secure; to kill the son of the preceding king would easily raise enough hostility against himself to hurl him from the throne. Just as Hamlet needs to do more than merely kill the king, but must gain the throne too, so the King needs to do more than merely kill Hamlet, but must keep the throne too.

Now this view of the play, as the King and Hamlet "stalking each other", would explain a lot: Hamlet's "antic disposition" and theatrical play to "catch the conscience of the king", as well as Claudius' all but hiring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on his nephew. Despite Hamlet's vitriol in his monologues, it cannot be denied that Claudius is a very capable king, apparently popular with the people too. The latter is true for Hamlet as well, and together with his rightful claims to the throne makes it hard for Claudius to eliminate him. On the other hand, I think Isaac oversimplifies the character of the Prince, making him too much of an ordinary revenge hero, if an unusually subtle and smart one.

This compelling point of view falls to pieces in Act III, Scene 3, when Hamlet has a marvellous opportunity to kill the King who is in the middle of a prayer and quite defenceless. This happens right after the play within the play which was interrupted by the King himself, fearfully disturbed to see his own crime acted on the stage. So now Hamlet, presumably, can expose the King, or kill him. Isaac admits that - and falters. He suggests that "Hamlet's passion interferes!", and that is anything but a convincing explanation. The Prince's own argument is preposterous: if he kills Claudius now, in a state of contrition, his soul would go straight to heaven. Now Hamlet is very keen on using the word "God" - he mentions it three times in his first soliloquy only - but there is no evidence that he uses it as something more than a figure of speech; this includes his fatalism towards the end of the play which is totally devoid of religious overtones. When in the next scene Hamlet kills Polonius behind the curtain and asks, himself or his mother, "Is it the king?", it never occurs to him that he saw the King praying on his way to his mother's closet. It is very unlikely that Claudius should have arrived before him. This Asimov doesn't mention, but it seems to me a pretty good indication that now Hamlet's passion got the better of him, and this Isaac acknowledges.

One of Asimov's most provocative notions about Hamlet, if the "fiery and impulsive individual" is not enough, is that the major motive of the Prince is his desire to be on the throne. Again, I completely disagree, as I think Hamlet doesn't give a damn about the crown. Yet Isaac has some persuasive arguments. He points out that Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, does stress the haste of his mother's marriage; that, and not the incest, seems to trouble him most. Why should this be the case if he is not ambitious for power? If his mother hadn't been so smitten with Claudius, and hadn't married him but a month after the old King's death, Hamlet would have had enough time to come from Wittenberg and claim the crown. Even more importantly, Isaac quotes two instances where Hamlet lists the crimes of his uncle and he does seem to suggest that his own main goal is to become a king:

A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket-

[III.4.97-102, the Closet scene.]

That's perhaps a little obscure, and Hamlet is almost beside himself here, but the ''precious diadem'' may well refer to the crown which Claudius has stolen from Hamlet's head. The next one seems more devastating:

He that hath killed my King and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,

[V.2.65-67]

Here Hamlet lists all four of his uncle's crimes, and with increasing intensity if Asimov is to be believed. First, murder. Second, incest. Third, coronation. Fourth, attempt to kill Hamlet himself. The case is not especially strong, though. Isaac may well have a point but, as he is the first to admit, this is the only place in the whole play where Hamlet mentions that he had "hopes" to be elected a king. In none of his numerous soliloquies does he allude to himself as a ruler. I am not convinced and I still think Isaac does an injustice to Hamlet's character. Nevertheless, I am already sure that I will be reading Hamlet with a different mind next time. And this is quite a tribute to Asimov's powers as a Shakespearean confidant.

Macbeth is the only play I was somewhat vaguely familiar with, having read it but once, before Asimov's chapter on it. For the author's own sake, it is better to leave aside his pathetic accusations that Shakespeare ''wronged'' the historical Lady Macbeth by making her an "epitome of feminine cruelty". Well, in Act I, Scenes 5 and 7, this is exactly what she is, masterminding a cold-blooded murder and crushing without ceremony Macbeth's insecurity about the plan. If the ladies feel offended, we may include the male sex in the "epitome of cruelty", as indeed both Shakespeare and Lady Macbeth do with those unforgettable lines: "Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" (I.5.38-39). Only the spirits got the message wrong and made her mad instead, but that's another story. By the way, Macbeth himself also shares the male cruelty hypothesis:

Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

[I.7.72-75]

The plot of Macbeth is an excellent example how historical background can be illuminating. Granted for some unnecessary references, this is Isaac at his finest. Take, for example, the character of Banquo. The best that can be said about him is that he gave Verdi an opportunity to compose a fine bass aria (''Come dal ciel precipita''). He is not just completely irrelevant to the plot - including his son Fleance who escapes death only to be never heard of again - but he is "handled with kid gloves", and he comes off much better than in Holinshed's chronicles that must have been Shakespeare's primary source. Why? Simply because Banquo, if he existed at all and there are good reasons that he didn't, was supposed to be the man from whom the Stuarts descended. Well, one of these descendants, James I, was most probably in the first audience and might indeed have commissioned the play. Shakespeare was far too smart to miss such an opportunity to flatter the King. This is probably the reason why he introduced all that macabre stuff with the witches; because James was a kind of horror buff. All this explains marvellously an otherwise perplexing "intrusion" into the plot (Banquo) or some unduly extended moments with the Weird Sisters.

By the way, another revelatory observation of Isaac is concerned with this lovely name: Weird Sisters. For ''weird'' must not be taken in its modern sense. It comes from the ancient ''wyrd'' which means ''fate''. In other words, these are not your ordinary hags that mix smelly potions and fly on broomsticks. Far from it. They are formidable creatures in front of whom the gods themselves are humble. The three of them know everything: what was, what is, and what will be. They can never tell a lie, but they can deceive by obscure phrases. Macbeth came to know that phenomenon rather well. Banquo somewhat redeems his unnecessary presence in the play by his exemplary analysis of the creatures:

But 'tis strange:
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.


Sometimes Asimov, in the role of stage director, can be extremely perceptive about certain seemingly minor incidents in the plots or lines that appear of little importance. The suggestion to cut the dumb show from Hamlet is a very good advice indeed. Such a show would give Claudius a chance to prepare himself and his conscience might not be caught so easily; his words during the real show indeed suggest that he didn't see any dumb one. Another example concerns Macduff's question to Macbeth after the latter had killed Duncan's servants: "Wherefore did you so?" (II.3.104), indicating the immediate rise of his suspicions that the murder of the King is not quite what it looks to be, or his later "Those that Macbeth hath slain." (II.4.23), which should be spoken with cold sarcasm. Macduff doesn't say anything explicit. But he does think, he does suspect, that Macbeth himself might have slain Duncan. Needless to say, this is a suspicion that, unlike Banquo and Fleance, will play a crucial role later.

It is worth noting at least one criticism of the book which shows, yet again, that people often criticize things they haven't read carefully. If you go to Amazon, you will find a two-star review which admonishes Isaac for several things he hasn't actually done in his book: dismissing Iago merely as "envious" and accusing Romeo for not doing the "rational" thing. The discussions of Othello and Romeo and Juliet are not quite as stirring as those about Hamlet and Macbeth, but they are full of fascinating insights worth having a look on.

It is very unfortunate that the erudite Amazon reviewer should compare Isaac Asimov with W. H. Auden, especially their treatments of Iago. It is unfortunate not because there is any great difference in the quality of the writing – there isn't; there's a great difference in style and character, and that's a different matter – but because both writers, ironically, are pretty much of the same opinion. Whether Isaac read "The Joker in the Pack", Auden's magnificent essay on the subject, remains elusive, but he certainly shares the notion that Iago is ''a practical joker of a peculiarly appalling kind''. He does mention envy as one of Iago's motives in the beginning, but as far as the villain's later machinations are concerned there is no question that Asimov, like Auden, would have no truck with Coleridge's inexplicably famous "motiveless malignity". (The alliteration is nice, but the intellectual weakness is odious.) Consider Isaac's two references to Iago's motives later in the play:

Critics have often maintained that Iago lacks real motive for his villainy and continues out of "motiveless malignity". It seems to me, however, that this simply isn't so. To many people there is a fierce delight in pulling strings, in the feeling of power that comes out of making others into marionettes whom one can manipulate at will.

[As regards Iago's final refusal to explain why he had caused such a calamity.]

This failure to say why has irritated many, but, in my opinion, it should not. Iago's pleasure at manipulating lives was intense and it is something we can all understand, for, in a much milder way, it is present in all men - and yet it is not something that can be easily explained.

I think this is a penetrating analysis. Shakespearean scholars, and presumptuous reviewers, may dismiss it as the crass ramblings of somebody who has no business dealing with the Bard in the first place. But seasoned readers should know better than that.

The character of Othello is yet another place where I find myself in a sharp disagreement with Isaac. He, again like Auden, is much more fascinated by Iago's brains than by Othello's nobility of soul. To be sure, my own admiration of Iago's mind, an epitome of passionate yet controlled scientific curiosity, is frighteningly high. But this is fully matched by my compassion for the Moor. Not so with Isaac. He clearly doesn't think much of him. I suspect his analysis of Othello's final speech - bizarrely described as being in self-pity and even more in self-hate - may be counted on enraging more scholars. After quoting the Moor's last words before stabbing himself -

And say, besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus.

[V.2.348-52]

- Isaac goes on to tell us that Aleppo, in present North-Western Syria, was a Moslem city for thirteen centuries, and if Othello had killed a Turk there he probably would not have escaped alive. This is rather thin, especially considering how fond of anachronisms Shakespeare was; besides, there is no reason why he couldn't have used the name without in the least bothering about such trifles as historical accuracy. The greater the poet, the greater poetic licence to shape his material he can allow himself. Isaac assumes that Shakespeare must have meant something else and goes on to suggest this highly questionable contention:

Othello therefore pictures himself as having returned to his origins, of having forgotten the Christian virtues of forgiveness, of having became "a malignant and turbaned Turk". He beat a Venetian (Desdemona). He also traduced (defamed) himself; robbing himself of his own fame and reputation by his actions; and insofar as he was the representative of the state of Cyprus, he traduced the state.

So he took by the throat "the circumcised dog" (himself) and killed him"


This is a notion I would not subscribe to, but it's a fascinating alternative to contemplate. Similarly stimulating, but even more far-fetched, is Asimov's rejecting of the troublesome phrase "like the base Indian" in favour of the seldom accepted "like the base Judean" (V.2.343, the final speech again). The author suggests that Othello refers here to Jesus as the pearl, "richer than all his tribe", that was thrown away by the Jews, Judas himself being the "base Judean". Likewise, Othello has thrown away the precious Desdemona. Another similar surprise is Asimov's interpreting Iago's famous description of jealousy - "green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on" (III.3.164-5) - as referring to cat and mouse. Strange as these interpretations seem to me, I daresay I will keep them in mind during the next reading.

By the way, I am excessively pleased that Shakespeare apparently shares my love for two types of animals: cats and horses. In addition to the above reference, there is Tybalt, the ''Prince of Cats'' and ''ratcatcher''. As for horses, nobody can beat Richard's famous last words: ''A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse''. (But note also the final speech of Lord Hastings: his horse did try to warn him not to go to that meeting because he would be assassinated, but Hastings didn't take the hint. If only humans were as intelligent as horses!) I wish Isaac had at least tried to explain why, ''for some reason'', these last words are so famous. But no matter. His final comment on Richard, who was offered to be saved and brought to a horse by one of his subordinates, is worth considering:

Richard, however, refused. He would not run to take up a life in exile as his brother had done and as Richmond had done.

We might easily imagine that he was tired of it all; tired of the politics and executions that had gotten him his crown; tired of the unending labors to win a popularity that would not come; tired of continued treason; and (perhaps) tired of the conscience he must live with over the matter of the princes.


Why ''perhaps'', Isaac? I should think it is clear from Richard's nightmare and final, incoherent soliloquy how powerful a factor his bloody conscience really is. Sadly, helpful as he is to elucidate the complex family relationship in the play, Isaac often dismisses key issues with an airy wave of his pen. In the notorious wooing scene (I.2.) he merely states that it's no use asking how Lady Anne could agree to marry the man who had kill her husband and her father-in-law. Yet it makes a great deal of sense to ask that, and remember that the scene ends without her agreement (though later, of course, she does agree). And the really important question is not ''How can she do such a thing?'', but ''Why does he want to marry her?'' This is a thorny problem, but its proper discussion should be saved for the review of the play.

As far as Romeo and Juliet is concerned, Isaac, of course, never blames Romeo for not doing the "rational" thing, as the profound Amazon reviewer claims. (Indeed it is a little hard to blame a man in love for not doing the rational thing, and Asimov knows it.) No, the author merely points out how easily the tragedy could have been escaped. He goes out of his way to convince us that the legendary feud between the two families is all but burned out, with the obvious – and only – exception of Tybalt who is always eager to make a nuisance of himself. This is a very shrewd point that is often missed.

Asimov goes further, putting his finger on certain words of Juliet and Friar Laurence that could (and indeed should) have been different. Again, this is a refreshing and illuminating point of view. It is strange that Juliet, a remarkably level-headed girl (much more so than the airy Romeo), should be so keen on emphasizing the feud and play for secret marriages and other conspiracy stuff. But, Isaac aptly reminds us, she is close to her cousin Tybalt and he might well have filled her pretty head with nonsense. Moreover, Shakespeare's pains to make her tender age clear (not yet 14) may have this very purpose: to make her romantic notions (of the feud, not of love) more plausible. As for Friar Laurence, he has no excuse for he is neither young nor in love. Yet he is a romantic fool, a far bigger one than any of the "star-crossed lovers", and it is he who really should have gone to the heads of the families, present the marriage as a fact and act for an official reconciliation. Instead he went for sleeping potions and secret messages, and we all know what happened.

If anything, Isaac makes you appreciate the tragedy as an even more poignant example, not just of malignant fate, but of human folly as well. Perhaps significantly, the fateful folly has little to do with the love element.

The only real problems with Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare are the inferior quality of the illustrations and the size of the book.

Those with sharp eyes may notice that the number of maps corresponds to the number of works. So in the beginning of each chapter one can get a nice idea about the main locations, including names of countries and cities; this is particularly useful in the case of the historical plays. Unfortunately, the maps are a little painful to look at. They are monochrome, it’s not always easy to distinguish land from sea, the ''mountains'' look like wrinkles on an ancient face, and the names of cities are so closely printed as to be nearly unreadable. Nevertheless, the maps are useful, if ugly. The 16 charts consist entirely of genealogical tables about the historical plays. They are not as extensive as their analogues in the Penguin Shakespeare, but they are serviceable enough. Indeed, they are indispensable. Without the maps, one can manage pretty well, but even Asimov's beautifully clear and concise text cannot elucidate royal family trees better than a simple diagram.

The size of the book is daunting, to say the least, and so is its weight. Unless your physical strength is exceptional, you will need some sort of support for reading this monster; all the more so since the book, being addictive, does stimulate long reading hours. The font is not the largest possible, but it is relatively eye-friendly and the line spacing is more than generous. Leaving aside the size – for size doesn't matter that much – the page layout is very comfortable for reading. It should also be pointed out that the two volumes are a single work, full of important cross-references. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to have it all in a single book. The mammoth size is a small price to pay for that.

Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare is probably the wrong way to get introduced to the writing of one of the most famous science fiction writers of all time. It's just so happened in my case. There may be better books out there written by single authors and dealing with the whole of Shakespeare's dramatic legacy. But, considering the complexity of the subject, I doubt these books would be so much better than this one. Asimov has at least two solid advantages. First, he is no Shakespearean scholar or literary critic. This allows an easier and more natural communication with his mind. Second, and more important, Isaac is a writer of considerable power. Some may sneer that he is superficial or conceited – and indeed he sometimes is, but then: who isn’t? - yet nobody can deny that he has a miraculous ability to present complex matter in a very accessible manner; no doubt the great deal of popular science he wrote contributed to this. The fact that his style is simple and amusing does not necessarily make it superficial and flippant, respectively.

The best introduction to Shakespeare is the body of his own plays, in scholarly edited texts with minimum of footnotes that clarify a meaning without inflicting an opinion. Then – and only then – a critical commentary may be of some use, provided that it comes from a fine mind combined with a skilful pen. Isaac certainly scores on both fronts. On his specific areas of interest – historical background and mythological allusions – he is impeccable, if a trifle long-winded and not always relevant. So far as Asimov's ''non-intention'' is concerned, namely the philosophical and psychological meaning of the plays, he is definitely provocative and controversial, always ready to supply something you would love to disagree with. Yet I wish he had spent more space on such speculations, and less on his ''official intention''. For he is much more worth reading and re-reading than I expected, warts and all.

I purchased this book simply because I wanted to have some sort of reference to the plots and characters in all of Shakespeare's plays that I can consult when there is no Wikipedia around, which is quite often in my case. Even though I had not read anything substantial by Asimov before, I had done enough desultory reading to know that he makes for an entertaining experience and, more importantly, his writing has the inestimable gifts of simplicity, lucidity and clarity. These are most desirable qualities when one is confronted with subject of such complexity. As it turned out, the book surpassed by far my modest expectations. Highly recommended for Shakespearean neophytes. Seasoned Bardolaters: beware! Presumptuous and snobbish folk: also.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

* See ''Introducing Isaac Asimov'' in The View from Serendip (1977) and ''Writing to Sell'' in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999).

** All quotations in this review come from the New Penguin Shakespeare, not from the Signet edition. The texts are very similar, with only minor variations in spelling and punctuation, but the lines may be slightly (or not so slightly) different than your own edition. ( )
6 vota Waldstein | Apr 23, 2012 |
Commentary on Hamlet:
"The history of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden during the Viking period before the time of Sven I is shrouded in darkness. We have nothing but legendary material ....
"The legendary material reaches us in a book written about 1200 by a Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, whose history of Denmark comes down to 1186. It is a Danish analogue of such British histories as that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and gives an account of some sixty legendary Danish kings....
"Included in Saxo Grammaticus' tales is a bloody one concerning a prince he called Amlethus. It includes a dead father and a usurping uncle, and Amlethus must feign madness while plotting a revenge he finally achieves." pp. 79-80

"There is no reason to speculate as to whether Hamlet was REALLY mad or only pretending. Of course, he was pretending. He says so. Nor is there any mystery as to why he was pretending. It was an extremely sensible thing to do, if we remember to interpret the event not in accordance with the prejudices of our time, or even Shakespeare's, but of the considerably earlier time of Saxo Grammaticus' chronicle, from which Shakespeare inherited the madness.
"In pagan times a madman was thought to be touched with the divine and was respected and even feared a little. If Hamlet were mad, any action which in a sane man might have seemed a suspicious move against Claudius' safety might be dismissed as a senseless antic. Furthermore, Claudius would find it difficult to take any action against a mad Hamlet under any circumstances, for the gods would then be displeased and evil might befall the entire nation." pp. 105-106
  Mary_Overton | Jun 29, 2011 |
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Examines the historical, geographical, and mythological background of the plays and two narrative poems.

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