Of course you can’t judge a book by its cover. But a pile of books on Shakespeare in performance encourages this kind of snapshot approach, and the semiotics of cover illustrations – like the semiotics of much recent performance – reveals an instinct towards a strongly framed visual concept. If we cannot judge the books by their covers, we can certainly answer certain questions by looking at them. Is Shakespeare in performance cool? Yes, says the cover to the achingly hip Shakespeare, the Movie, II (edited by Richard Burt and Lynda E. Boose), which shows us Ethan Hawke as moody rich boy Hamlet walking the streets of New York, his torso crossed with an urban bag strap, an ethnic knitted hat pulled down on his head, sunglasses and a downcast look of stylish alienation. Maybe, says Sarah Hatchuel’s Shakespeare, from Stage to Screen, with a bearded Branagh, dressed in double breasted tunic and sword by his side, looking through the camera on the set of Much Ado About Nothing: it’s film, so modern, but it has swords in it, so it’s also old. No, says the uninspiring cover to Jonathan Holmes’s Merely Players, which manages to suggest that his fascinating analysis of a range of actors’ accounts of their work are the equivalent of the jacket’s Jacobethan burgundy flock wallpaper. Is the field all olde-worlde doublet and hosery? No, says Cynthia Marshall’s Shakespeare in Production: As You Like It, with its cut-out from Cheek by Jowl’s all-male production where an arch Celia strokes Rosalind’s flank. Not quite, says Players of Shakespeare 6, in which a sumptuously dressed king complete with crown who stands by his queen, looking stageleft in consternation, is played by a black actor.
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