Shakespeare Sex and Love – revisited

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Photo. by Christoph Mueller

For an author, the lead up to the date of publication of your book is an exciting and potentially tense time. You’ve received your advance copies and looked fearfully to see if anything’s wrong. There can be. When the first copies of my first solo-authored book Literature and Drama arrived I looked proudly at it only to find that it started with the General Editor’s Preface not to my book but to one in the same series written by a different author. Telephone wires hummed, apologies were made, and publication had to be delayed while the error was rectified. Some unfortunate employees of the publisher had to slice out the wrong preface from every copy that had been printed and paste in a corrected version, known in the trade as a cancel. I still have that first copy with the wrong preface. It would be a collector’s item if the book were one that anybody wanted to collect.

Of course you never have enough free copies, and you may have ordered a few extra at your own expense. You proudly present those you can spare to your nearest and dearest and to anyone to whom you’re especially indebted for help. If you’re lucky, your publisher will have succeeded in arranging some advance publicity.

For Shakespeare, Sex, and Love I was indeed lucky. Oxford University Press, publishing my book around the date of Shakespeare’s Birthday, had landed two high-profile broadcasts to launch it on its way. One of them was on the Radio Three programme Nightwaves, which I especially admire. On it books often have to share the allotted time with other items – maybe a film, an exhibition, and a theatre performance. But because James Shapiro’s excellent book Contested Will, a brilliant study of the so-called Shakespeare authorship question – I of course don’t think there is one – was to appear at the same time as mine, the entire forty-five minute programme was allocated to the pair of us. The presenter, Matthew Sweet, had received advance copies. One of these he had handed to his producer, who said as I went into the studio that it had been great fun to be seen reading what he called ‘such a fabulously filthy book’ while coming in to work on the tube.

James Shapiro and I had an animated conversation about the subject matter of our books and really enjoyed the occasion. And not only that, OUP had succeeded in getting me on to Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on Radio 4. This time four hopefuls gathered in the studio to publicize their work. It was quite an international group. Besides me there were the Indian director of a Bollywood romantic comedy, the French author of a book about philosophy and the Dutch author of one about the politics of charity giving. Each of us was expected to try to make intelligent remarks about each other’s work, and to foregather to do so at a somewhat early hour of the morning. We got through it all without conspicuous mishap.

After the pre-publicity comes the anxious period of waiting for the reviews – well, first of wondering whether there will be any, and if there are, what they will be like. I struck lucky. It happened that the first review of mine appeared in The Guardian on the day of the celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday, and I nervously got a friend to read it to me as we were sitting outside a coffee bar waiting for the procession to start. Written by Simon Callow, it began by describing my book as ‘the latest in’ my ‘many superb studies of the writer to whom’ I have ‘devoted most of my working life’ and carried on in a vein of eulogistic eloquence such as I should never have ventured to express even if I’d been writing the review anonymously myself, concluding with a reference to my ‘concise and elegantly written book’ which he said, ‘subtly and systematically illuminates Shakespeare’s acknowledgment of the glory and the horror of what it is to be fully human, the unceasing contradictions, the inescapably oxymoronic nature of our life, especially in this area of sex and love.’

After this there came equally good, if less exuberantly expressed reviews by writers such as Charles Nicholl (in The Financial Times) and Robert Maslen in the TLS – a review which placed a degree of emphasis on my treatment of homoerotic issues that, somewhat to my surprise, sent the book rocketing to the top of the Gay list on Amazon for quite a while. And sometimes one gets nice comments in less exalted places – only the other day, a student whom I don’t know tweeted to her followers ‘Shakespeare sex and Love … was really enjoyable! I do like enjoyable homework.’ Which pleased me very much.

Shakespeare Sex and Love is just out in paperback from Oxford University Press.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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