What Was Shakespeare Really Like? by Stanley Wells

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Stanley Wells is one of the world’s premier Shakespearean scholars, with, as he discusses in his epilogue, more than 80 years of experience of studying, teaching, reading, and watching Shakespeare. His newest book is an exploration of the man: What Was Shakespeare Really Like? (Cambridge University Press, September 2023). He writes about Shakespeare by considering the historical facts that are known, as well as the assumptions that can be made based on the sonnets and plays he wrote.

When I was an English major, I loved interpreting literature from a variety of perspectives. That’s why a book like this so deeply appeals to me. Wells’s combination of analyzing Shakespeare personality from the perspective of the author’s life as well as the writing itself was fascinating. He highlights that Shakespeare’s writing shows his flexibility with change and improvisation, as well as his meticulous ability to develop an elaborate plot and characters. He has an broad range of writing talent, and it clearly has developed as he gained experience. He was a polyglot and he was familiar with unique places in the world. He could write with a slapstick sense of humor, hoping to please his patrons and viewers, but his preferred humor was likely more specific for everyday life. Further, although it’s clear Shakespeare was driven by an internal compulsion to write.

It has been a long time since Shakespeare was alive, and so much about life in his era and about his life specifically has been lost. But much can be insinuated based on the facts we do know and the memorable words he created within his lifetime. Wells provides four main questions he hoped to answer as he reviewed the historical facts from Shakespeare’s life as well as the details found in his plays and poems.

  • What manner of man was he?
  • How did Shakespeare write a play?
  • What do the sonnets tell us about the author?
  • What made Shakespeare laugh?

With an epilogue about his own history of Shakespearean study, Wells ties together his commentary with the conclusion that Shakespeare, despite his well-renown in his day and ours, was a “private man.” The bottom line is that Shakespeare’s writing is still universal today because he was so “deeply immerse in the life of his time, so vulnerable to temptation and open experience.” After reading Well’s reviews of Shakespeare and his plays, I too feel a desire to recognize this universality of experience as I revisit the man’s created worlds. Yay for Shakespeare!

I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance review copy of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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Reviewed on September 19, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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