Emma Smith on This Is Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 141

Is there a right way to interpret Shakespeare’s plays?

No, says Emma Smith, and there’s a good reason for that. In her new book, This Is Shakespeare, she writes that Shakespeare’s plays are characterized by gaps—unknowable elements and unanswered questions that require us to insert our own readings. These gaps, opened up by history, dramatic from, and Shakespeare’s tendencies as a writer, mean that these plays are much less tied up, spelled out, or clear cut than we like to think.

In this episode, Barbara Bogaev talks to Emma Smith about her book, and some specific gaps in Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Faculty of English and a Fellow of Hertford College at Oxford University in England. Her new book, This Is Shakespeare, was published in the US by Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2020. Find her on Twitter at @OldFortunatus.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published March 31, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “That’s Not My Meaning,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Rich Woodhouse at Electric Breeze Audio Productions in Oxford, England.

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Prospero’s epilogue as Shakespeare’s farewell?
Read an excerpt from This Is Shakespeare.

Myths About Shakespeare
Listen to Emma Smith discuss her previous book, co-authored with Laurie Maguire, 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare.

Iqbal Khan
Listen to the director tell us how Smith's notion of "gappiness" plays out in his productions.


MICHAEL WITMORE: There are all kinds of ways to interpret Shakespeare—to truly know what he meant. But let’s be honest. Doesn’t it sometimes seem like there are some ways that are just considered a little bit more “right” than others?

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Emma Smith is an eminent Shakespeare scholar. She’s steeped in the world of Shakespeare studies. And a while back it dawned on her: These quote-unquote “right” ways of experiencing or interpreting Shakespeare?... They might actually be a problem.

Professor Smith worried about this a lot. And then she decided to do something about it. She presented a series of lectures, one each on 20 of Shakespeare’s plays. All of them designed with a message: Look, your interpretation of what’s happening on stage… Your idea of what this passage or that passage means… Your interpretation is right. And maybe one of those other ones is right, too. In fact, according to Professor Smith, Shakespeare wrote these plays in a style that was actually designed to be open to interpretation.

After delivering these lectures, Professor Smith decided to publish them in a book—a book that’s coming out in the United States as we record this. The book’s called This Is Shakespeare. And Professor Smith—who teaches at Oxford—came in recently to talk with us about it.

We call this podcast episode “That’s Not My Meaning.” Emma Smith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


Emma, your thesis that Shakespeare's broad appeal across cultures and centuries hangs on a concept with a wonderful, made up word—maybe not so made up—but you call it, "gap-i-ness". What is "gap-i-ness?"

EMMA SMITH: Well, “gappiness” is just all this breathing space that there is in Shakespeare: all the things that we don't know, the space there is for our creativity. So, I'm trying to say these plays are really incomplete, and the thing that they need to complete them is us and our sort of inventiveness, our world, our experience. So those gaps are not a negative. In fact, they're a really enabling positive.

BOGAEV: Well, I love this, because right off the bat you're addressing this issue that a lot of people feel with Shakespeare, which is that, "I'm shut out. I don't know enough." Or, "This isn't for me. It's a thing complete unto itself and the doors are locked.” But just before we get into this deeper, maybe you could give us just quick examples of what you mean by these gaps or these windows into Shakespeare that leave it incomplete that we can fill.

SMITH: Yeah, and some of those gaps are to do with what theater is like as a medium, particularly when we're reading, effectively, play scripts. There's a whole load of stuff we don't know. We don't get any narration. We don't get what we would get in a novel.

Just on the most basic level we don't know what characters look like. We very rarely know how old characters are. There's lots of elements of plot that we are not fully given. Sometimes things are described to us, but they're not shown, so there's a question mark about how they should be interpreted. Lots of actions in Shakespeare's plays are not scripted or there aren't stage directions telling us.

And there are also some sort of more historical gaps that I think inform the way Shakespeare writes; a gap between an older form of understanding the world and some new things that are coming in, and that sense of being astride two world views. That's particular to perhaps the end of the 16th century, but it's actually been a situation that we've often felt we're in and that is a code in later ages, too.

BOGAEV: Well, you ran through some categories of gaps. Can you give us some specific gaps in specific plays?

SMITH: Sure. So, one of the examples of a thing that we don't see and so we don't know how to interpret it, comes right at the beginning of Julius Caesar. Offstage we can hear a crowd cheering. They're cheering because Julius Caesar has been offered the crown and we hear that he's rejected it. The whole plays turns on whether Caesar really means to reject the crown, or whether he has ambitions to be a king. But because we don't ever see that, we can't make up our minds of the whole question of what Caesar's ambitions might be; whether it's explicable or even justifiable for the conspirators to assassinate him. That gap at the beginning of the play structures the whole thing.

Or there's another kind of example which comes from this sense of having a foot in two worlds. One of the questions that really captivates me about Macbeth is the question of blame. Shakespeare's really stacked up the blame here. The witches seem to have a role to play. Lady Macbeth seems to have a role to play. Macbeth of course has got his own agency. And I think this plays out some real questions that are never answered: why things happen? That's a big philosophical question which is moving from a religious explanation to a more human explanation about the time Shakespeare's writing. And the play encodes some of those internal contradictions in thinking.

BOGAEV: I want to get into the specifics of the plays that you analyze, but as you speak I'm thinking, “Isn't this just what artists or genius artists do? They're not black and white; they're multi-minded, they're open minded, they give you a lot to think about at once, and multifarious points of view?”

SMITH: I think that's true to some extent. Yeah, absolutely. In some ways, you know, the definition of a classic is a thing that's not told us everything it has to tell us yet. In some ways, this is the definition of drama. That it's made up of all different senses, and we're not getting all of those in the script.

But I think there is something very specific about Shakespeare. It's partly intrinsic to the way that he writes and that he conceives his plays. Much less is fixed. Much less is tied up at the end then we've tended to assume. And it's also been amplified, if you like, by this long history we've got of engaging with Shakespeare at different times and in different places. So, we've kind of hollowed out those gaps and made more space for us to interpret in different ways.

BOGAEV: Well, you do talk about the Shakespeare posing questions and unsettling certainties, presenting them, and he's challenging orthodoxies. I wonder if that comes from Shakespeare's schooling, since children were taught rhetoric and to argue both sides of whatever they were arguing.

SMITH: That training in the Elizabethan school room, arguing both sides: in utramque partem. I think that was a brilliant sort of, if inadvertent, training for playwrights, because what you're made to do is to make different points of view as valid as you can. One of the effects of that of course—and Shakespeare's biographers have been struggling with this for 400 years—is that Shakespeare's own views really recede. It's very hard to deduce those. And particularly in a play, say like Richard II, which dramatizes this hugely important political issue of a change in rulers and leaves it really unclear which side we're supposed to be on.

BOGAEV: Were other playwrights of the time doing that? You know, presenting their work by saying, "On the one hand," and, "On the other hand," or was there didactic theater at that time?

SMITH: I think there is more didactic theater in the hands of other playwrights, and more of a sense that the counterview is always posed by a negative character. So, you might still get the view and the counterview, but you're still pretty clear where your sympathies should be. Shakespeare doesn't really adhere to that.

BOGAEV: Okay, well let's dig into some of these big gaps or questions marks. Let’s start with Taming of the Shrew, because that's where you start with your book. Could you please read the first two paragraphs of that chapter for us, because it's just so wonderful how you set up the dichotomies.

SMITH: So, from the start of the chapter?

BOGAEV: Yes, from the start of the chapter.

SMITH:The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and one of his most controversial. Everything, from the name of its heroine to its ideology of gender relations, is contested to the extent that it's impossible even to begin with a neutral synopsis of the play. Here's why it's impossible.

“The Taming of the Shrew centers on the courtships of the two daughters of the Paduan merchant Baptista: Katherine and Bianca. The elder, Katherine, is apparently the shrew of the title, a woman who, depending on how you look at it, is feisty and independent, lonely and misunderstood, or strident and anti-social. Her father—who, depending on how you look at it, is either a worried widower or a patriarchal tyrant—has decreed that Bianca—who, depending on how you look at it, is either beautiful, gentle and agreeable, or exactly the kind of annoyingly insipid, simpering arm candy who you, like her sister, would want to slap—cannot marry until her older sister gets hitched. The stage is set for the entrance of Petruchio who, depending on how you look at it, is a quirky and unorthodox guy who knows his own mind and wants a woman who knows hers, or a psychopathic bounty hunter with sadistic and misogynistic tendencies.

“So, Katherine and Petruchio are paired off against Katherine's will, in a relationship which, depending on how you look at it, is crackling with mutual sexual tension along with a touch of shared S&M domination fantasy, or is cynical, loveless and enforced by a violently patriarchal society. He treats her in a way which...”

BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Sorry. I'm sorry. When you get to the domination part, you're so dry in the reading, it's wonderful.

SMITH: “He treats her in a way which depending on how you look at it, uses distinctly unfunny torture techniques including sleep deprivation, brain washing and starvation to bend her to his will, or is a zany courtship showing their mutual determination not to yield, as an underlying equality beneath their revolutionary union.

“So, at the end of the play, Katherine is, depending on how you look at it, broken-spirited, “parroting” patriarchal ideology and utterly submissive offering to put her hand under her husband's foot, or ironically and unabashedly vocal, preaching the interdependence of husband and wife, to earn herself half of a fat wager placed by her husband.”

BOGAEV: That is so wonderful. So, confession here. I told my husband about your book, and I gave the example of gappiness in Taming of the Shrew and before I gave the examples in specifics he said, "What do you mean? There are no dichotomies in Taming of the Shrew. It's absolutely clear to me who she is and who the other characters are." And then I read him your first two paragraphs and comedy—hilarity ensued. Marital discord ensued.

I never thought of the play either, really, as so open-ended. But you know, I read that and it makes me think, "Oh, my gosh, there must be more gaps in this play than any of the plays." And remind us, Shrew is also a play within a play, which that calls everything even more into question.

SMITH: That's right. There's an opening scene called an induction with some completely separate characters; a sort of low-life tinker called Christopher Sly, who is drunken and picked up as a joke by some upper class people, who play a trick on him that he is really a lord who has been very ill. They perform a play within a play for him, and that play is the play of Katherine and Petruchio.

As I say, depending on how you look at it, that either means that we're supposed to take it all with a pinch of salt, that this is the kind of play that you would put on for a drunken fool. When Christopher Sly says in one version of the play at the end, "I'll go and tame my wife, too", we're supposed to think, "Yeah, well, you know…

BOGAEV: “Good luck.”

SMITH: Yea. “Good luck. Only a fool would think that.” Or whether this is a sort of framing device which amplifies the play's patriarchal message.

BOGAEV: Aren't all Shakespeare's characters like this, though? I mean, what makes Shrew stand out to you in this way?

SMITH: The clarity of the question, which I focus around Katherine's last speech. So Petruchio makes a bet that his wife is so tame that she will come whenever he calls, and his friends say, "Yeah, right. Of course she will." That they lay the bet, Petruchio sends for Katherine and she immediately does come. She also delivers the longest speech in the play—the longest speech by a longshot. I mean, comedies don't have long speeches. That's one of their features. People don't deliver themselves of great oratory; that there's more back and forth. But Katherine gives this great, long speech, and it's about how women should submit to their husbands.

It's already a sort of ironic moment. On the one hand, everything she says is about women's inferiority to men and how they ought to accept that. On the other hand, she is talking, you know, to the exclusion of everybody else, and through repetition of this point she seems to make it sort of more ironic somehow. A little bit like, “Brutus is an honorable man,” in Julius Caesar, whereby the end of it you think Brutus is most certainly not an honorable man. But what that comes to at the end of Katherine's final speech is that she says, "You should be willing to put your hand under your husband's foot and that's what I'm willing to do.

BOGAEV: I always took it as just as you say, pretty much hyperbole, that she doth protest too much. So, is she just trying to win the bet?

SMITH: Well, I think that's certainly one possibility, isn't it? This is a set up in some way between them, or she knows what she has to do. This is a performance, rather than something that she really believes. But there have been much harsher interpretations where this formerly very feisty and independent woman really is broken by the end of the play. So, I think there are lots of different ways to take it.

One of the things I was interested in in looking at different editions of Taming of the Shrew. People may just want to have a look at this in their own copy of Shakespeare. After the speech, Petruchio says, "Why there's a wench." And then in the play's most famous line, "Come on and kiss me, Kate." And again, there's no stage direction. Most editors will say they kiss, or sometimes, he kisses her, which we all know suggests something slightly different. But, you know, it may be that they don't. It may be that that doesn't happen and we don't get the happy ending. It's not possible to have that, as a result of what's gone before.

BOGAEV: So how did people in Shakespeare's time think of it? There is this tendency now to think, "Oh, it's the MeToo generation and we're more evolved than they were. This is horrific. Well, that's why we think this behavior is reprehensible.” But you do talk about Fletcher, who wrote a sequel to Taming of the Shrew.

SMITH: Yeah. What's so great about Fletcher's sequel to it, which is called The Tamer Tamed, is that it precisely skewers that point, that it's because we have different concerns, or we're in a different sort of social order than Shakespeare's, that we have problems where there were no problems before, nobody would have thought about this until feminism or something. But that doesn't seem to be true. Fletcher writes a play about 15 years after The Taming of the Shrew with some of the same characters.

The set-up is that Katherine has died and so Petruchio is a widower who's just about to remarry. Brilliantly, Petruchio's new wife says she is going to teach him a lesson. She says, "You have been known as a wife breaker. Now you have a wife will break you." But on the other hand, the men in Fletcher's play all recall Katherine, Petruchio's first wife, with sort of fear and trembling. There's a great line in it about Petruchio still has nightmares about her and that she's going to get up and walk around the bedroom and put on his britches, you know. It's an absolute literalization that, “Who wears the britches in this relationship?”

So, what's interesting is that the women in Fletcher's play seem to think that Petruchio needs to learn his lesson, and the men seem to feel Katherine ran him a dance. There's a sort of contradiction… openness about the reception of the play. At the end Fletcher says, "Well, it's not really right for men or women to have the upper hand, is it? We should try for something a bit more mutual,” and everybody seems to agree that that's a good way around.

BOGAEV: So, to sum up this part of the conversation about Taming of the Shrew, is there some kind of formula or specific to this play about the process of the gaps that Shakespeare writes into it?

SMITH: This early play and this, sort of, very controversial play, really exemplifies the openness to interpretation that I think is there in all of Shakespeare's plays. I think it gives us the template for that. It gives us it in a very clear way, because the question of proper relations between men and women has continued to be a source of debate and controversy ever since. So, it's one of the plays where we can see the openness to different kinds of interpretations most clearly.

BOGAEV: Well, your discussion of Twelfth Night takes a very different tack. We've been talking about Katherine, the main character, but in that chapter instead of focusing on the main characters, you zero in on this minor character of Antonio. You suggest that his relationship with Sebastian is the important overlooked element of the play. First just remind everybody; Twelfth Night, you know, it's hard to keep track of all the names, what's going on. Who is Antonio and Sebastian and why hone in on Antonio?

SMITH: So, the main action of Twelfth Night is a kind of love triangle between Viola, who has been shipwrecked in Illyria. Of course she is in a Shakespeare comedy, she's dressed herself as a man, so she's called Cesario. She's in love with Orsino, who is her master, but Orsino has sent her thinking she's a man, to woo Olivia on his behalf, and Olivia has fallen in love with her. So, you've got a lovely triangle there of kind of mistaken or—in sort of standard romance terms—misdirected desire.

Sebastian is Viola's twin brother. He also seemed to have been drowned but hasn't been, and he turns up too in Illyria, but they don't know that each other is still alive. Sebastian is accompanied by a sailor friend called Antonio. And I was interested in them really, largely, because Antonio is a pointless character. There's no need for him at all, because Sebastian's role in Twelfth Night is to be a male Viola. He has to come in and sort out this threesome into two straight pairs. In order for that to work, he needs to be as little himself as possible, and really just to be a sort of duplicate Viola, but of the correct sex. Antonio really spoils that, because Antonio's intense friendship, intense relationship with Sebastian...

BOGAEV: It's a bromance, right?

SMITH: It could be a bromance. It could just be a romance. Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I try and explore is the terms in which men might refer to each other; whether the strength of what Antonio says about Sebastian, "I do adore thee so" is one of the lines. "I do adore thee so." And I try and work out whether "adore" is a romantic word, or whether it buys into the very high status that male/male friendships had in this period, a much higher status than marriage; that your soulmate, if you were an educated man, would probably be another educated man, not your wife.

BOGAEV: Oh, okay, because I was going to ask you, how did the audience in Shakespeare's day understand same sex attraction or what we call gender fluidity or all of the things that's going on—that's hinted at in Twelfth Night?

SMITH: Well, it's a really, really interesting question. It feels as if the theater is able to do things—perhaps as the theater often is—is able to do things that are not possible in everyday life. But that theater does seem to play with gender: the all-male acting companies that may have built in a sort of frisson of—which we would now call queer, I guess. A kind of drag frisson, or something like that.

Certainly, Twelfth Night is a play which it's really impossible to make straight. It's full of same sex desire of different sorts. If you manage to sort of tamp it down in one place—for example by saying the reason Orsino is in love with his servant Cesario, who is really Viola dressed up as... that's it's not a very convincing disguise, and that really he's in love with the woman underneath—that doesn't quite make sense of why Olivia is also in love with that figure.

So, you know, that the suggestion of same-sex desire pops up somewhere else in the play. I think Antonio is really the lynchpin of all of that, actually. His relationship with Sebastian is perhaps the one truly self-sacrificing relationship in this play, which is full of narcissists. Antonio puts himself in danger for Sebastian and gets very little recompense for it. But the important thing for me about the play is that he is there.

One of the things I try and think about is the practicalities of the theater Shakespeare's writing for. Basically, actors mean money and you try and make the most of the actors you've got, doubling up their parts, making sure that they do a proper afternoon's work. And it's hard to see Antonio just in that practical, theatrical way, as other than very wasteful. That makes me think he's really important, thematically.

BOGAEV: Hm. And so, where does the gappiness reside, then? I mean obviously there's so many question marks in this many ways that we understand this word, "adore", or how many different types of love there are. But you seem to be highlighting the point that Twelfth Night, it's all, as comedies are, heading towards marriage. But in this play—those marriages—that happy ending really isn't possible. What do you mean by that?

SMITH: Yeah. I wonder whether… sometimes we think of Twelfth Night as being Shakespeare's last comedy, so maybe Twelfth Night is the last of the so-called kind of romantic comedies. It seems to me to have come to an end with romantic comedy, that there are more important relationships at the end of Twelfth Night than heterosexual marriage.

One is the reunion of the twins and the other, I think, is these relationships we would now call gay or queer; these non-heterosexual relationships, which are very highly charged and emotional in the play, and which are all around these rather compromised and hasty marriages that actually try to bring it all to a conclusion.

BOGAEV: Hm. So, Measure for Measure, which is right in the heart of a problem play in Shakespeare, then blows apart these conventions of comedy even more than Twelfth Night? And you say that, “Shakespeare borrows from his creative experience across different genres, to explore the elastic notions of comedy in this play.” So, unpack that for us and what relation it bears to this thesis of yours about gappiness.

SMITH: I think Measure for Measure's a really, really fascinating play with a real ability to trouble us. So, in certain ways, it's a very clear comedy. It's listed among the comedies in the First Folio, it's heading towards marriages, it has disguise as part of its plot, and you know, in all those ways it looks as if it's cut according to the sort of comic cloth. But on the other hand, it's a deeply existential play about government and morality, and it takes place in the prison and the brothel, not in the “green world.”

I suppose one of the things I was really interested in, was this is a play with another fabulous, really big gap, or silence. At the end of Measure for Measure, the duke who has been actively trying to plot and manage a situation and has kept his true identity from Isabella, who is a novice nun. He proposes marriage to her, kind of out of the blue, but it is a comedy and we're coming to the end, so hey. She doesn't reply and then he proposes again, and she still doesn't reply.

It's a really wonderful example of a completely literal gap, that directors and actors need to think through and think, “What's that gap going to mean? Is it going to be a space for her to throw her arms around his neck? Is it going to be a space for her to go back to the convent?” So, I was kind of interested in the way the duke seems to me to really want to bring about a comedy at the end, and really nobody else quite wants to go along with him.

BOGAEV: Well talk about a pregnant silence. I mean, I've almost always seen this as horror. A look of horror on the face of Isabella, who has proven herself to have so much agency. But Measure for Measure, it's so brutal on the women that it sets up to have agency. As the play goes on, it keeps drubbing Isabella and just draining her of her power.

SMITH: I think that's right and I think that's one of the ways in which it really pushes at the comic envelope, because it's absolutely clear that if you're a woman, if you're a woman actor, the kind of plays by Shakespeare you want to be in are actually comedies. Comedies are hospitable to women, they're usually organized around women's desires. Women are allowed to be funny, they're allowed to sort of go on quests and work out what they want. The beginning—the first half of Measure for Measure complies with that in that Isabella has a lot of stage time. She has some brilliantly clever argument with Angelo, and in the second half of the play, we see that power really waning, and she comes to be stage-managed by the duke.

BOGAEV: You know, I'm thinking that what we were talking about earlier in the conversation, that some people don't find it easy to find a way into Shakespeare. Throughout your book, especially in the beginning, you acknowledge that. I wonder if you put that down to Shakespeare just being done badly in the theater? Or that our expectations in modern times are so different than those of audiences at the Globe—which we, in some cases don't really know at all what it was like to be at the Globe—that it can feel tedious.

SMITH: I think Shakespeare can feel tedious. I'm absolutely signed up to the idea that Shakespeare can come to life in the theater. But I think the flipside of that is sometimes it can be really boring in the theater. I think Shakespeare is not good at Act Four. I think Act Four is often very boring, and that's the time usually I think around 9:30 in the theater, where you're trying to just sneak a little look at your watch and think, "How much longer have we got to go?" So, it's good to acknowledge that, because I think we can all feel that we failed a bit if we're not absolutely on the edge of our seats for every moment of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Well, you talking about Act Four as the snooze time reminds me of The Tempest, and how Prospero is constantly saying, "Are you paying attention? Hey, pay attention now!" Do you think he's speaking to that Act Four, or is he speaking straight to the Groundlings having a picnic in the pit?

SMITH: Well, I think in some ways, he expresses an anxiety, which must be Shakespeare's anxiety. Shakespeare, in The Tempest, has set himself a trick—I think—a dramatic trick, which is to write a play that takes place in real time. In order to manage that, he has to have this big kind of flashback, but it has to be a big narrative explanation about how we got here. And so, in Act One, scene two, which is full of talk about what happened 12 years ago, how they ended up there, there's an awful lot of important information. And I think Shakespeare is slightly worried that this is… he's gone against his own playwriting credo, which is really show, not tell. And this is an awful lot of telling.

BOGAEV: Well, in your chapter on The Tempest, you take aim at this idea that it's often referred to as Shakespeare's last play, and how significant that is. That Shakespeare—you can see Prospero as Shakespeare. Why take that route?

SMITH: I suppose one of the ways I wanted to get some gaps and some breathing space back into Shakespeare's plays was sometimes to just dismantle some of the things that we often repeat about particular plays, which I think can be a bit of a trap. So, I have a go at whether Midsummer Night's Dream is suitable for children and I say it's really not. And here I have a go at The Tempest is a play about the philosophical artist figure that's always been associated with Shakespeare. I point out that that tends actually to overlook or underplay some of Prospero's very negative characteristics. It makes him into a wise and benign figure, rather than a sort of weird control freak, as he is actually in the play.

BOGAEV: Yeah, I always think he's such a cruel jerk. I always thought that was strange: that we're supposed to equate Prospero with Shakespeare. I would probably not like Shakespeare very much.

SMITH: I completely agree, but I think that that association of Prospero and Shakespeare has kind of suppressed that maybe a little bit. If we get rid of that, we can see some of the other things that have come into view. I mean, the idea that The Tempest is about the travel to the new world and those kinds of things. There are really interesting ways to see the play. There have been for the last century or more, but they're still a little bit pushed out by this biographical impulse.

BOGAEV: And just so I get it, what is the secret sauce of gappiness in The Tempest?

SMITH: I guess what I was trying to think about in The Tempest was, if we lift this restrictive framework, the framework that says Prospero is a kind of Shakespeare, what kind of air does that get into the play, and what gaps does that create? So, I suppose I was trying to think about a way that our assumptions, or a critical assumption can harden and restrict the fluidity and the openness of a play. I was trying to sort of crack that a bit.

BOGAEV: As I read the book, I feel like you are speaking to an audience who wants a less dogmatic, less complete Shakespeare. Who is that audience? What need are you meeting? Or who were you speaking to when you were writing?

SMITH: So, I suppose I drew from speaking with students at college and in high school, and theater audiences and library patrons and those kinds of groups. So not academics, not people who are studying this every day of their professional lives.

There's a brilliant Amazon review of my book. I am absolutely vain enough to read Amazon reviews, and one of them says, "This would be good if you're interested in Shakespeare", which I thought that was probably fair enough. I don't see my audience as being people who are not at all interested in Shakespeare. But I do think that there are people who feel maybe not comfortable, not confident in their own opinions; a little bit that there's all kinds of stuff that they need to know that they don't know. Maybe still going back to school in a sense, that there's a right answer about these plays and that you've just got to try and uncover it. They're the people I hope might find something interesting in this book.

BOGAEV: Emma Smith, I've so enjoyed the book and talking with you. Thank you very much.

SMITH: Thanks so much.


WITMORE: Dr. Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Faculty of English and a Fellow of Hertford College at Oxford University in England. Her new book, This Is Shakespeare, was published in the US by Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2020. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, That’s Not My Meaning, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Rich Woodhouse at Electric Breeze Audio Productions in Oxford, England.

If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited—and I imagine you are—please do us a favor and leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. Thank you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.