Book Review: Much Ado about Shakespeare, by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookshops from Thursday 10 March. 
I devoured this book as soon as I received it. Donovan has done an inimitable job of telling everybody about the life of Shakespeare. The subtitle says it all: The life and times of William Shakespeare: a literary picture book.

Donovan has form for this type of work – though for the last 10 years, he has been illustrating new editions of nursery rhymes and reworking fairy tales, as well as working with Kyle Mewburn on their Dinosaur Rescue and Dragon Knight series’ and writing his own graphic novel for kids’ – his only other illustrated book aimed at (mostly) adults was Faithfully Mozart (Hodder, 2005, finalist in the Montana NZ Book Awards).

Deeply researched yet entirely approachable, this is Shakespeare as he has never been seen before. Donovan takes us with him through Shakespeare’s life, showing us the (probable) motives behind some of his most famous lines. His opening line gives you a sense of the tone of the book. “Shakespeare has never been sent to the naughty corner of history, or locked in a mouldy cupboard to be rediscovered by future generations.”

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, to a father who was rising in society: though he was one of 23 glove makers in a small town, he became Mayor when Will was four, earning Will the right to a free education. Donovan makes it clear that it was impressive to survive at all in Shakespeare’s era. He somehow dodged the plague in the year of his birth, and again at least three times in London. He married young, at 18, then had three children (including twins), before joining a travelling troupe of actors and heading off to London.

Donovan points out the sketchiness of certain details of Will’s life – both sketchy in the sense that not a lot can be ascertained from records, and sketchy in that he partook of pretty well every vice known at those times. “One story places Will in the nearby town of Bidford, where our aspiring teenage poet drank so much that he passed out under a local crab-apple tree. By the eighteenth century, this hallowed tree had become a tourist shrine known as ‘Shakespeare’s Crab.’”

2016-03-01 13.13.27Donovan’s illustrations are lively and full of action. He draws the fashions and the livery of the times in the most sumptuous colours, as well depicting the grimmer side of London life in all its soot-covered debauchery. There are topless barmaids with their nipples covered by jugs, with Shakespeare’s leading man Richard Burbage – who loved a good brawl – appearing as an avenging angel in the background. There are men making-up as women, and men on the rack. One of my favourite images in the book, for the cleverness, is of Will as a horse-handler for the wealthy patrons of the theatre. (left)

As well as the full-colour illustrations, there are sketches, some of the men in his Acting Troupe – led by Richard Burbage, some of Elizabethan torture devices. Donovan shows that he can bend to work with historical accuracy, mimicking the sketch style of the period in some cases.

Donovan notes that one of the reasons that Shakespeare did so well in his life is through his wise investments, in property and chattels. While he had patrons, many others frittered away money unwisely – perhaps this nous was learned at his father’s knee, while scraping up dog poo to help with the tanning process for his father’s gloves. Whatever it was, it ensured that just as he became a national icon during his life, his family was well furnished upon his death.

Before reading this book, I owed my knowledge of Shakespeare to having visited The Globe in London and being involved with the Shakespeare Globe Centre of NZ here in Wellington. I have read most of his plays, and studied and performed in a few at school. But I would never have imagined a biography of Shakespeare could have this level of accessibility. Every high school should pre-order a class set, as context for their inevitable study of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello… and the rest. And every Shakespeare lover should get a copy of Much ado about Shakespeare forthwith. It’s that good.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Much Ado about Shakespeare
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262023


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