A review of Shakespeare the Thinker by A.D. Nuttall

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Shakespeare the Thinker
by A.D. Nuttall
Yale University Press
2007, ISBN 978-0-300-11928-2, $30.00, 416 pages

Nuttall was professor of English at Oxford University and this was his last book. Its existence and excellence provoke two questions: why are there so many books about Shakespeare and why are so few of them any good?

Nuttall’s success suggests that critical narrowness is part of the problem. So many aspects of Shakespeare are so brilliant that critics tend to focus on the parts rather than on the whole Shakespeare. Another part of the problem is that Shakespeare himself contributed so heavily to the background of modern inquiry that he has become a kind of white noise of the intellect, so transparent to critical thought that critics spend much of their effort in transactions that are compromised from their inception. It is at this point that Nuttall begins his valuable contribution. Shakespeare, he writes, was not an idiot savant, a kind of naïve singing bird, unschooled and impetuous. He insists that Shakespeare was a great creative mind, one that was constantly preoccupied with thought far in advance of his time and place.

Necessarily this is a very speculative book. As such it could be very wrong. It does not follow that this is necessarily a defect. The lie that reveals the truth is more valuable than the critical scrapings of myopic scholars.

His method is to consider the plays in clusters as themes connect one play to another. There is some chronological skipping about in this although he tends to keep plays grouped reasonably well. Some plays – King John, for example – attract little attention and he passes over Edward III, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (the collaborations, in other words).

As a luscious extra, he compares the two careers of Marlowe and Shakespeare up to the time of Marlowe’s death in 1593. He decides that, had Marlowe lived, Shakespeare had already surpassed him, that Marlowe’s potential was already near exhaustion, and that the heights Shakespeare would reach still occupy us.

Here is the extent to which Nuttall claims that Shakespeare was a thinker: “If we set aside technological advances like mobile telephones, it is remarkably hard to think of anything Shakespeare has not thought of first, somewhere. Marxian, Freudian, feminist, Structuralist, Existentialist, materialist ideas are all there.”

His claim that Shakespeare has been there before us and opened significant doors – some of them very widely – brings us to arresting conclusions. If, for example, Hamlet is a good fit with Freud, it is not coincidence. And it is equally arresting, properly considered, that Freud is not always a good fit with Hamlet.

Nuttall uses wit and personal recollections to illuminate his text. The result is lively and relaxed although he makes no concessions to difficulties. His explanations are cogent and full. As a book by a writer worth reading for his own sake and as one of the dozen books that any reader of Shakespeare should have, this is not only an essential book, it is a delight.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places