'The Shakespearean world is a happy hunting ground'

When people ask me what my job is, and I reply that I publish the Shakespeare list at Cambridge University Press, they often look puzzled: "Don’t we know all the plays already? What is there new to say about Shakespeare?"

Sometimes people assume that the only live intellectual debate is about whether somebody else wrote the poetry and drama ascribed to Shakespeare. That would indeed be a depressing thought, that I spend my days in combat with the Baconists or the Oxfordians! There is, however, the consoling, unanswerable truth of the thriving Shakespeare industry, and I sometimes fall back on that as my raison d’etre: not many publishing enterprises centre on single figures, but Shakespeare and Darwin are two, and the Press has substantial lists in both.

For several days last year the Independent featured short articles by famous people about the Shakespeare play that has meant the most to them. Howard Jacobson, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Antony Sher and others gave moving, personal accounts of how their lives and minds were changed by the experience of Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, or Henry IV. The pieces revealed the writers as much as the plays. Shakespeare’s works form a common currency, like a shared religious text, because most of us have been exposed to one or other play and a few of his sonnets at some point during our education. An astonishing number of teachers, lawyers, doctors and engineers have an urge, at the end of their careers, to set down their thoughts about Shakespeare, and submit them for publication. 

Shakespeare is a glorious, baggy monster. He lived 400 years ago, but his drama made living history. If you sit down to watch a TV adaptation of a novel by Jane Austen, Trollope or Dickens, you wait in the agreeable expectation of a Regency or Victorian setting, wonderful dialogue, country house or London grime. If you switch on a performance of Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you have no such familiar anticipation. Either play might be set in a hotel kitchen or a circus, and at any point in time. And so with books on Shakespeare. One could be a book about theatre technology, using worldwide Shakespeare performances as examples; another might be a study of the digital text, or postmodern theory, or acting in the 18th century, or Japanese drama. There are books about the theatre of Shakespeare’s time, his colleagues and rivals, and others which might have their roots in another discipline, such as metaphysics or art history. And as each generation finds something new, so the texts of these plays and poems must be adjusted, introduced, annotated, illustrated for students and theatregoers of the next age.

And so, in reply to such an opening gambit, I am apt to respond: the Shakespearean world is a happy hunting ground. Yes, it’s just one writer, but he’s kept me busy for nearly 40 years.

Sarah Stanton is Shakespeare publisher for Cambridge University Press.