I am on my third read-through of Sky Gilbert’s Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World.
It is the best book I’ve read this year, one of the most interesting books I’ve ever encountered.
I’ve been dancing around this one for quite awhile, hesitant about the review because I am in awe of the book. Nobody expects me to be brilliant even if the book has put me in touch with a desire to be immortal, to make an impact. Gilbert’s book deserves to be read, deserves to be influential. While Gilbert hasn’t been a professor for very long (he was still in grad school when I was there not so long ago), he’s doing great things.
I have read a lot of entertaining books this year, but I’m certain this is the best, a great idea for a Christmas gift in a year when all the best-sellers seem to be about American politics. (click here for more information on how to get it)
Sky brings up Marshall McLuhan’s dissertation. Did you know that McLuhan was a professor at the University of Toronto? And that his scholarly work has little or nothing to do with media even if that’s where his fame lies. Sky’s choice of a departure point is apt given that the book stirs a comparable nationalistic pride.
So as you can probably tell by now, I admire the author & the book a great deal. If I were telling a joke, the worst thing I could do is to say “I have a wonderful joke to tell you” which would kill any possibility of a laugh. But that’s the thing, I’m not looking to be dramatic or to surprise you with an unexpected punchline. I am falling all over myself, after having nervously avoided writing this review for ages because I can’t be nearly so clever. So I have resolved to just put this out there as simply as possible. At one point –perhaps in the midst of my second read through—I was hoping to unpack more of the book, to discuss it and engage with its content: which I realize now is absurd, especially considering the economy of Sky’s prose. The book deserves to be part of a curriculum.
I recall hearing that there were more books about Jesus, Napoleon Bonaparte & Richard Wagner than anyone else: a factoid likely composed by a musicologist. But when I googled the question I see that it’s now 1-Jesus, 2-Napoleon and, 3- (you guessed it): William Shakespeare.
With each trip through Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World, my appreciation for Sky’s remarkable achievement grows, a book that flows with a conversational ease while opening up dense analytical pathways. I want to retain its ideas so that I can talk about it.
While the title is poetic it also captures the book rather well, the battle that seems to recur every century between those seeking to privilege science & what can be known, vs those of a more platonic or idealistic bent. The miracle is how Shakespeare can be both old yet also new. Old not just because he’s from centuries ago but as an examplar of even older rhetorical tendencies that were being discarded & pushed aside in Shakespeare’s time. New in his apparent deconstruction of words, through his resistance to denotative language, against interpretation via the slipperiness of his poetry.
If I seem to be teasing you, in comparison Gilbert’s book is a provocation, throwing down a gauntlet. I would refer you to Gilbert’s previous book small things (2018) that I see promoted online (AND that I now must read, as a possible gloss on the Shakespeare book) as follows:
Small things is a book of mini-anti-essays, part of Sky Gilbert’s project to dismantle and challenge the rigid classifications of genre, thus challenging 21st century notions of truth. Inspired by Oscar Wilde, Foucault, and the post-structuralist project, the small writings in small things are story, essay, and memoir combined. They question the notion that an essay is necessarily fact, or fair opinion, or even informed opinion, while at the same time challenging the dictum that fiction might necessarily be free of didacticism, or at least, ideas.
Amazingly I see Gilbert doing many of the same things in his newest book, this time in the deadpan manner of a scholarly study. Whether it’s teasing us with didacticism, poetry, the fluidity of post-structuralist discourse, all while undressing The Bard and challenging previous Shakespeare criticism, and even musing on Shakespeare’s actual identity in passing, I am reminded of Sky’s explorations & incarnations of drag-queens. Shakespeare Beyond Science manages to dress itself up in the clothing of a serious book while offering welcome challenges to the usual assumptions underlying the discipline.
Gilbert’s introduction closes with this nugget (and I quote perhaps more than necessary for the fun of it):
From the start stage director and editors modified Shakespeare’s text in order to render the language less ambiguous. Today, critics like Harold Bloom are suspicious of anyone who asserts that Shakespeare was primarily a poet. And scholars still waste a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what Shakespeare means. Shakespeare was obsessed with the truth that lies in language itself. But truth means something very different to Shakespeare than it does to us.
As it should have. Truth was his motto, and his last name.
As I re-read this I noticed what he meant, a subtle but pointed reference to Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford, a candidate to answer the questions surrounding William Shakespeare’s identity. In Latin that would be “veritas”, “vero” in Italian, or vérité in French.
I’m no expert so I can only mention the objections to de Vere raised via google, such as the problem of his death many years before that of Shakespeare. But that doesn’t derail the conversation. As we first engage with the meta-questions, the mysteries about Shakespeare’s identity, changes in his reputation over the centuries & the growing reverence he has acquired, we are teased with parts of the question. Let that encourage you to engage with Sky Gilbert rather than with me.
But I’m failing to properly capture the subtlety of Sky’s work. I feel I’d be a spoiler, like one of those critics who tells you the plot-twists in place of a review, were I to attempt to summarize the book.
On its cover, it’s presented this way:
Shakespeare wrote at a unique historical turning point: the world was understood through poetry—rather than through the science of observing it. In Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World, Sky Gilbert’s radical new research locates Shakespeare as a disciple of the Greek rhetorician Hermogenes, and a student of the Neo-Platonist Johannes Sturm. No, not just another “interpretation” of the meaning of Shakespeare’s work. Instead a radical approach to Shakespeare as magician and rhetorician, as a post-structuralist more concerned with form than content, and confident of the dangerous magical power of words not only to persuade but to construct our consciousness.
Gilbert is painstaking in unpacking the basis for Shakespeare’s style, the clearest such explanation I’ve ever seen. If the Bard were just an actor from a small town in England, could he possibly have had the opportunity to learn all that would have been required? Additional subtext for the Bard as de Vere is in Gilbert’s discussion of de Vere’s education, and Johannes Sturm. Before Gilbert gets to Sturm & Hermogenes (who each get a chapter, illustrated by examples from Shakespeare) we revisit Marshall McLuhan & the Classical Trivium: the subject of McLuhan’s doctoral dissertation, and the backdrop for a subtle discursive shift that was taking place at the time. In a nutshell, it concerns the gradual acceptance of the biases exemplified by the Royal Society & Francis Bacon, towards trusting observations, inductive reasoning & clarity, and resisting or even decrying ambiguity in expression & poetry. In effect Sky invokes Shakespeare in defense of poetry: an ongoing struggle to this day.
But there’s so much more to it. There’s a chapter on sexuality where Ernest Hemingway rears his masculine head, and sodomy puts in its obligatory appearance.
I keep reading and re-reading, both because I keep noticing additional depths. And yes, Sky offers the best sort of escape from the horrors of CNN & CP24.