Michael Dobson

Michael Dobson is director of the Shakespeare Institute.

However​ dissentious, alienating, confusing and anxious life may have been for most of the English under the Tudors, the period, especially its last two decades, has usually been remembered as an idyllic apogee of national self-definition. By the time Shakespeare and his apprentice John Fletcher co-wrote All Is True (printed as Henry VIII) in 1613, wistfulness for the previous reign was...

Did Shakespeare​ know they were his ‘last plays’? Or his ‘late romances’? The very terms by which scholars habitually refer to Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, All Is True (Henry VIII) and The Two Noble Kinsmen, all composed between about 1607 and 1613 – between Shakespeare’s 43rd year and his 49th – compound the issue of...

Elsinore’s Star Bullshitter

Michael Dobson, 13 September 2018

I saw​ a great performance of Hamlet this spring, at Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, in a Soviet-era theatre built on a similar brutalist scale to the National in London but with less of its self-effacing eagerness to fit in. Or rather I saw Hamlet not in the Ivan Franko Music and Drama Theatre but under it. The theatre’s ambitious artistic director, Rostislav Derzhypilsky,...

Ovid goes to Stratford: Shakespeare Myths

Michael Dobson, 5 December 2013

Perhaps it was inevitable that Shakespeare’s talent should have been understood in mythological terms from the outset. Even before he published Venus and Adonis (1593) his early plays had revealed an imagination profoundly shaped by Ovid’s tales of the interaction between gods and mortals, and, despite the growing prevalence among his audiences of a neoclassical taste for...

Diary: The Russell-Cotes

Michael Dobson, 23 February 2012

What is the difference between great art and tat? In the theatre, Dr Johnson’s rule of thumb seems adequate: if people are still prepared to revive a play a century after its premiere, it probably matters, whether or not they call it ‘dramatic art’. But it’s trickier with paintings, which have a relationship to the word ‘art’ that baffled me for years. When...

Short Cuts: Deutschland ist Hamlet

Michael Dobson, 6 August 2009

In which country has Hamlet mattered most, politically, over the last couple of centuries? Despite a succession of celebrity stage productions, the answer probably isn’t Shakespeare’s sometime homeland. Modern British nationalism has certainly found the cult of Shakespeare as the indigenous voice of Warwickshire quite useful from time to time, whether the task at hand has been...

We never went on holiday to foreign countries when I was a child. Not to properly foreign ones, anyway. Although we lived on the South Coast, the family Hillman Minx would head not towards a nearby Channel port but westwards, or north-westwards, or just plain north. In perverse flight from the sunlit sandy beaches of Bournemouth – which attracted mere holidaymakers, the kind who were...

What with all those Henrys being succeeded by all those other Henrys in the histories, and all those worryingly ghostly patriarchs looming over the tragedies – Julius Caesar, Old Hamlet, Banquo – you never get very far from paternity in the Shakespeare canon. Nor is fatherhood presented solely as a matter between father and son, in the manner highlighted to the point of...

Let him be Caesar! The Astor Place Riot

Michael Dobson, 2 August 2007

During 2005, while Nigel Cliff was writing his wonderful book about the Astor Place riot, I too visited a couple of the archives he consulted, namely the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the New York Historical Society. Long fascinated by the events of 10 May 1849, I couldn’t leave Manhattan without making a pilgrimage to Astor Place. But I could find no memorial to the 26 people killed in one of New York’s bloodiest episodes; nor was there any mention of the two actors, the American Edwin Forrest and the Englishman William Charles Macready, whose long-smouldering rivalry as to whose was the greatest Macbeth of the age had culminated in clashes between a 15,000-strong mob and a detachment of the National Guard.

In a glass case in the garret of a house just off Fleet Street, a historic publishing contract has just gone on display. It only takes up one piece of paper, rather smaller than a sheet of A4, and compared to most such agreements today seems remarkably straightforward. It is the document by which, in 1756, the firm of J.&R. Tonson undertook to publish The plays of William Shakespeare, in eight volumes, with the corrections and illustrations of Various Commentators; To which are added notes by Sam. Johnson.

Mushrooms: How to Be a Favourite

Michael Dobson, 5 October 2006

The eroticised discourse of favouritism was so well established by the 1580s that it could evidently perpetuate itself regardless of the facts of particular careers. Leicester, for instance, is depicted in the much transcribed Catholic libel Leicester’s Commonwealth (1583-84) as a monster of gluttony, even though his correspondence reveals him to have been a self-disciplined and abstemious diner with an enthusiasm, years ahead of his time, for light white wines and salad. (His headquarters in Utrecht now house a passable restaurant.)

One of Shakespeare’s defining knacks, so it’s said, is his ability to render his own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art. So although it seemed uncontroversial when Paul Salzman recently related a rich and miscellaneous clutch of Jacobean publications (Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Donne’s elegies, Wroth’s Urania and...

They were both eight-year-old grammar-school boys when news began to reach England of the bloody events of St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 (news which bolstered moves towards Protestant reform in each of their provincial towns), and they remained sufficiently interested in French politics to write in a surprisingly well-informed fashion about the subject twenty years later. The dispute...

And That Rug! images of Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, 6 November 2003

Above the entrance to the saloon bar there is a picture of Shakespeare on the swinging sign. It is the same picture of Shakespeare that I remember from my schooldays, when I frowned over Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice. Haven’t they got a better one? Did he really look like that all the time? You’d have thought that by now his publicity people would have come up with...

Collectors’ fantasy Christmas present it may have become, but Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was a series of headaches before it was anything else. Despite the confidently comprehensive title they gave it, the editors of the First Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell, were defeated by the task of assembling all of their late colleague’s plays: we...

Lost Mother

Michael Dobson, 17 February 2000

We are proud of the national sentiment in Scotland which is associated with the name of Mary Queen of Scots. A simple chronicle of her sufferings was the first tale of sorrow over which we wept … In graver manhood we are not ashamed to acknowledge, that we cannot peruse the volumes of her wrongs without emotion. This feeling, while it shall endure, and pervade the bulk of our population, may be held as a proof that loyalty, and the love of justice, and hatred of oppression, are among our permanent national characteristics.

Hoarder of Malt: Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, 7 January 1999

Every year, on a Saturday morning in April, the miscellaneous participants in the most improbably charming event in the official national calendar gather for a cup of tea in the Georgian town hall of a small market town in the West Midlands. There is a great deal of scarlet in evidence, in the robes of the assembled Council and of sundry invited academics, white in the vestments of the local clergy, and a respectable quantity of gold in the mayoral chains of office; there are any number of sombre grey suits on visiting diplomats and corporate sponsors; and outside the sunshine, if there is any, glints from the brass instruments and buttons of a military band. More unusually for such an unostentatiously English and provincial event, the procession into which this ill-assorted group will shortly be organised also includes people dressed in simulated buckram and taffeta and the gleaming mock-silver of property breastplates and crowns, all of them borrowed from the second-best wardrobe of the Royal Shakespeare Company in order to deck out students and members of local amateur dramatic societies as representative characters from each of Shakespeare’s plays. This is Stratford-upon-Avon on the weekend after 23 April, a day celebrated since the 18th century as Shakespeare’s Birthday. As Park Honan’s impressive new biography reminds us, the parish records for 1564 make it certain only that he was christened on 26 April, and our knowledge of contemporary church practice suggests that Shakespeare’s real birthday is just as likely to have been 21 or 22 April. But it has become obvious that if the National Poet wasn’t born on St George’s Day it can only have been through an oversight which we have a duty to overlook.

Gobsmacked: Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, 16 July 1998

‘Soul of the age!’ exclaimed Ben Jonson in the prefatory pages of the First Folio (1616), ‘The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!’ His climactic description was elaborated in the Second Folio (1632) by the young John Milton: ‘Thou, in our wonder and astonishment/Hast built thyself a lasting monument.’ Historically, Shakespeare criticism begins with wonder, and that it should have returned there in these millennial times ought not to surprise us. This batch of studies finds, in the USA, Peter Plan and T.G. Bishop combing the plays for miracles and James Biester finding the key to Renaissance courtly poetry in its strategies for eliciting astonishment. Back home, Jonathan Bate is gobsmacked by the sheer Genius of Shakespeare. It’s perhaps as well to remember that in cooler moments Jonson complained that ‘Shakespeare wanted Art’ and Milton berated Charles I for preferring the Bard to more serious reading.‘

There’s a porpoise close behind us

Michael Dobson, 13 November 1997

How far could, or even should, a history of nonsense make sense? This is one of the questions raised by Noel Malcolm’s study of English nonsense verse – a book which is itself, appropriately, an apparent sport in a career otherwise devoted to Hobbes’s letters and the geopolitics of the Balkans. Perhaps only an author raised on Leviathan and hardened by the experience of publishing something as contentious as Bosnia: A Short History would have the nerve to attempt the task of trying to write cogently about the battiest literary treasures of the English Renaissance. This is an anthology of 17th-century poems which were specifically designed to frustrate and render ludicrous all the normal procedures of reading. That Malcolm’s introductory essay manages to be intelligent about these exhilaratingly daft texts without sounding solemn, pedantic or twee is itself an achievement.’

Shee Spy

Michael Dobson, 8 May 1997

Twenty years ago, when Maureen Duffy first published The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89, Behn was still known principally as the celebrated but largely unread founder of women’s writing, the figure who had been hymned but effectively dismissed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929). ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,’ Woolf wrote, only to declare Behn’s actual writings to be so much cheerful hack-work, of interest only as the hack-work of a woman. Since Duffy set about contesting this verdict, however, things have changed, and the appearance of this vastly fatter life of Behn (together with the completion of Janet Todd’s seven-volume edition of The Works of Aphra Behn for Pickering and Chatto) confirms the scribbler’s accession to the status of a fully-fledged Author.

Cold Front in Arden

Michael Dobson, 31 October 1996

Does anyone still think Shakespeare’s comedies provide happy endings for their heroines? Come to that, does anyone still think Shakespeare’s comedies have either ‘happy endings’ or ‘heroines’? There certainly wasn’t much in the way of feminocentric festive renewal going on in Stratford this summer: Steven Pimlott’s unusually bleak As You Like It – which appeared to be set at midwinter in the hold of a container ship – gave the impression that the RSC has forgotten why marriage to either Orlando or Rosalind ever looked interesting, let alone a cause for rejoicing. This production’s refusal of what used to seem the essential, reassuring pleasures of Shakespearean comedy is symptomatic of something broader, partly, no doubt, of a social climate in which marriage looks a less certain source of closure or consensus than ever, but also of a particular intellectual climate around Shakespeare, admirably represented by these four new books. There is every reason why the historical moment which produces these studies should also produce a Forest of Arden distinctly lacking in the cosy and the connubial: the version of Shakespeare’s England which these critics describe is one which leaves the Rosalind whom theatre audiences long knew and loved out in the cold.’


Michael Dobson, 8 June 1995

Anyone who has ever taken the slightest interest in Shakespeare and his times owes a great deal to Edmond Malone. It was Malone who in a single month, June 1789, discovered not only the papers of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, on which most of our knowledge of the working practices of the Elizabethan theatre is based, but the records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels from 1622 to 1642, a complementary treasure-trove on Jacobean and Caroline court entertainments and dramatic censorship; Malone who first trawled systematically through the parish and corporation records of Stratford for the surviving documentary traces of Shakespeare’s family, and in the process found the only extant item of his personal correspondence, a letter to him from his neighbour Richard Quiney; Malone who found what remains the only known copy of the 1594 first quarto of Venus and Adonis (and later bequeathed it, along with most of his remarkable library, to the Bodleian); Malone whose path-breaking edition of 1790, with its insistence on the paramount authority of the early quartos and the First Folio, was the first to include reliable biographical information about Shakespeare, a chronology of the plays and a properly-edited text of the Sonnets. Scholars of the Restoration and 18th century are only slightly less in his debt: it was Malone who, with massive scrupulousness, collected and edited the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Malone who rediscovered Aubrey’s Brief Lives; Malone who wrote the first biography of Dryden based on primary documentary sources; and Malone whose editorial encouragement and insistence finally coaxed his friend Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Life of Johnson into shape and into print. In the hands of this apparently diffident Irishman, the practice of literary history changed for ever: as far as the privileging of meticulous textual scholarship and painstaking archival research is concerned, Malone wrote the book.


Michael Dobson, 18 November 1993

‘It were a delicate stratagem,’ muses King Lear at one point during his great mad scene:

In response to Brian Mossop, I do not deny for a moment Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s contention that French speakers are encouraged to use synonyms (Letters, 13 August). I distinctly remember characters in Racine, for instance, who, once embarked on the subject of their ‘désirs’, are prepared to tell us a great deal about their ‘soupirs’, their ‘voeux’,...


15 November 2001

I'm sorry that my remarks about Indiana University caused offence to Richard Maxwell and Roderick Jacobs (Letters, 13 December 2001), and hasten to correct their assumption that they are based on ignorant prejudice. I used to work there.


16 July 1998

I was sorry that my account of a whole batch of recent books on Shakespeare and wonder (LRB, 16 July) couldn’t fit in more than a paragraph or so and a few general remarks about Peter Platt’s Reason Diminished, so I’m quite pleased that its author has compensated for this by reviewing the book much more fully himself (Letters, 20 August). While I’m not surprised that Platt found...
‘I was born where the sound of the waves is the sound of tears,’ wrote Radclyffe Hall. And Jean McNicol (LRB, 30 October) observes that ‘this loses something when you discover that her place of birth was Bournemouth.’ Speaking, admittedly, as someone else whose place of birth was Bournemouth, I’d say it gained rather a lot, and I’d be sorry to see the LRB endorsing...
I am puzzled as to why Derek Hughes (Letters, 5 June)should be so indignantly determined to misconstrue my comments about the style and emphasis of Janet Todd’s eminently scholarly biography of Aphra Behn as allegations of ignorance. I thought I had made it clear that my reservations are, if anything, of exactly the opposite tendency, to the effect that Todd spends too much time conscientiously...


8 June 1995

Although Peter Martin clearly finds both the personal character of Edmond Malone and the gentlemen’s-club social milieu he inhabited considerably more sympathique than I do, his response to my review of his conscientious and valuable biography in other respects greatly exaggerates our differences (Letters, 6 July). So far from cherishing an animus against ‘sound scholarly work, using primary...


18 November 1993

Just for Brian Vickers’s own benefit (Letters, 24 February) let me hereby go on record as stating that Appropriating Shakespeare, so far from confining its attentions to books less notable than itself, is as epic in its punitive ambitions as The Dunciad – a work, indeed, with which its whole mind-set (if not its entertainment value) constantly invites comparison.As I understand it, Vickers...

Once upon a time there was a little girl who, at the age of two, had in some fashion to be told that her father had just cut off the head of the beautiful mother who used to lavish affection on...

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Identity Parade

Linda Colley, 25 February 1993

‘I will never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.’ John Major’s ringing assurance to last year’s Conservative Party...

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