• “The aim of poetry,” H.L. Mencken once claimed, “is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true.” It would be hard to come up with a less apt explanation of Shakespeare’s eternal appeal. We read him for many reasons, but surely the most basic one is that he tells us—beautifully—what we know is so, in the process strengthening our sense of reality. That such a man must have been by definition intelligent would seem self-evident, but in the never-never land of contemporary academic criticism, nothing is self-evident, and so A.D. Nuttall, lately of Oxford, has written Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale, 428 pp., $30), a book dedicated to the proposition that the Bard was smart.
Nuttall starts off with a bang:
We know what Milton thought about many things. He didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; he thought the execution of Charles I was morally right; he believed that married couples who didn’t get on should be allowed to divorce. But we have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question. The man is elusive—one might almost say, systematically elusive. There is something eerie about a figure that can write so much and give so little away.
The point, of course, is that Shakespeare’s plays exist in a realm beyond ideology, and that his intelligence consists in his extreme responsiveness to the essential, transhistorical facts of human nature:
Has no one noticed how, while the scholars increasingly seek to confine the meaning of a play to its immediate historical context, directors and actors are playing Shakespeare in 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century dress, and even, on occasion, in “mixed period” settings? . . . Such productions seem not to destroy or even diminish the force of the plays presented.
Why not? Because Shakespeare is preoccupied with human action and its motivations—and because he is smart about them, very possibly smarter than any other artist who has ever lived:
He thinks about causes and motives, identity and relation, about how pretence can convey truth, or language (by becoming conscious of its own formal character) can actually impede communication. . . . His thought is never still. No sooner has one identified a philosophical “position” than one is forced, by the succeeding play, to modify or extend one’s account.
Having staked his claim, Nuttall bears it out by serving up a series of close, richly idiosyncratic readings of virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays (he skips over King John and The Merry Wives of Windsor). These are not for novices—Shakespeare the Thinker was written for readers already familiar with the plays—but if you know the territory, you will find them immensely illuminating.
I have quoted at length from Shakespeare the Thinker because its quality is not readily communicable in snippets. Nuttall writes in periods, not epigrams. Here is one of his best, a reflection on Hal’s curt dismissal of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV:
The King slaps down Falstaff, but at the same time he is slapping down something in himself. When at the end of the speech the King rules that Falstaff is not to come within ten miles of his person, we sense that he fears the attraction of Falstaff; a truly cold manipulator would not need to make any such provision, would simply forget Falstaff at this point. Despite these moments, the speech of rejection rolls forward unstoppably. It breaks Falstaff’s heart and does the trick, politically. We hate Henry as we watch, but then we have to think, if we are English, “He is doing this for us.”
The whole book is like that, sometimes dense with allusion but always—like Shakespeare himself—bristlingly, stimulatingly intelligent. It is the best book about Shakespeare to cross my desk since I began covering theater for the Wall Street Journal four years ago. I expect to read it more than once, each time with increasing profit. So will you.