Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Stanley Wells

Shakespearean tragedy and modern politics

On his recent visit to England Barack Obama chose to tour Shakespeare’s Globe, on Bankside; and in the last days of his Presidency, interviewed about his reading habits, he spoke touchingly and revealingly of his admiration for Shakespeare’s tragedies, and of what they had taught him. ‘I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college’, he said, ‘where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them.

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How well do you know Shakespeare actors?

‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.’ Over the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s plays have been performed across the globe, in productions big and small. Many actors have tried their hand at bringing characters such as Hamlet, Othello, Puck, and Juliet to life. How well do you know some of the great Shakespeare actors and the plays they performed in? Test your knowledge with our quiz below.

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Who was the first great Shakespearean actress?

The first female Juliet appears to have been Mary Saunderson, to Henry Harris’s Romeo in 1662 when her future husband, Thomas Betterton, played Mercutio. Later she acted admirably as Ophelia and Lady Macbeth but nothing I have read characterizes her as great. Elizabeth Barry (c.1658–1713) succeeded her as Betterton’s leading lady, excelling in pathetic roles and achieving her greatest successes in the heroic tragedies of her own time.

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Who are the forgotten Shakespearean actors?

Stanley Wells’ latest book, Great Shakespeare Actors, offers a series of beautifully written, illuminating, and entertaining accounts of many of the most famous stage performers of Shakespeare from his time to ours. In a video interview, Wells revealed some of the ‘lesser’ remembered actors of the past he would have loved to have seen perform live on stage. The edited transcript below offers an insight into three of these great Shakespeare actors.

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(Homo)sexuality in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The great actor Sir Ian McKellen, who is also well-known as a gay activist, was recently quoted in the press as saying that Shakespeare himself was probably gay. Invited to comment on this, I pointed out that there was nothing new in the idea, which for a long time has been frequently expressed especially because some of his sonnets are clearly addressed to a male.

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Shakespeare, sex, and love: Recording sexual behaviour in the sixteenth century

It is in the nature of things that sexual behaviour that does not offend agreed norms makes no special stir. Even so it may be revealing. People masturbate, woo, marry, copulate, and give birth. Of these events the law requires only that marriages and, in Shakespeare’s time, baptisms rather than births be recorded. Analysis of such records may in itself illuminate the sexual mores of the period and, indeed, of Shakespeare and his family.

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