Shakespeare’s brilliance lies in all the stuff he left out

William Moore

No actor who auditions for Twelfth Night wants to be cast as Antonio. Yet for Emma Smith this seemingly uninteresting character has much to reveal about the play.

On the surface he is the earnest dull man who saves Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, from drowning and then becomes his friend. But is there a hint of homoerotic desire between the two?

In a play in which the word “adore” crops up many times between amorous characters, Antonio’s line “I do adore thee so” could be interpreted in that light. So when the other characters couple up at the end, how are we meant to feel about Antonio, who is present but silent? “Is he attentive?” wonders Smith, “jilted? well-wishing? angry? sad? Shakespeare leaves us no stage directions as clues, but he’s put the character there for a reason.”

In This is Shakespeare, Smith, a professor at Hertford College, Oxford, argues that the defining characteristic of his plays is their “permissive gappiness”. The silences, the inconsistencies and unanswered questions — these are the reason the plays demand our attention. They need us to fill these gaps with “all our idiosyncratic diversity and with the perspective of our post-Shakespearean world”. The “Shakespeare” of the book’s title is whatever Shakespeare we need him to be.

Smith whizzes through 20 plays, focusing on whatever she believes are the most interesting questions. Sometimes she considers historical contexts, sometimes she ignores them. Sometimes she gives a concise history of critical engagement, sometimes not. Sometimes she focuses on the central characters and sometimes on a figure standing at the edges.

Her approach throws up some intriguing observations. What, for instance, are we to make of the death of Cinna the poet at the hands of the plebeians in Julius Caesar? Smith points out that this moment might serve as a warning against mob mentality; a structural contrast to Caesar’s planned death; a dark joke as a means of relieving tension; or as a statement on the tightening literary censorship of 1599; or all of the above.

Smith aims for accessibility. At times this is pushed too far. I enjoyed comparisons of Falstaff and Homer Simpson but winced at the use of the phrase “bros before hoes” to summarise the ethic of Much Ado About Nothing. An aside: this also must surely be the first book on Shakespeare to use the slang term “woke”.

This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith (Pelican Books, £20)