“Words, Magnificent Words, Wonderful Words”: Priestley on Shakespeare

A new insight into the world of the 17th century and the stories behind Shakespeare’s plays:  Shakespeare in 100 Objects, created by the Collections Team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Find out more about nightcaps, chamber pots, solstice dishes and a monk’s head spoon, with expert commentary from many Shakespeare scholars.

These objects have the richness and humanity that J.B. Priestley found in Shakespeare’s works.  Again and again he returned to Shakespeare in his books, his essays, his journalism.  Priestley revelled in Shakespeare’s stunning use of language, his humour, his tolerance …  Shakespeare (in Priestley’s view of him) had all the qualities he most admired in literature and culture:

“In his desire to keep a balance, his wrestling with the opposites … despite his immensely rich nature (and rich is surely his favourite word) and many-sided genius, he comes close to generations of ordinary Western men of intelligence and goodwill” (Literature and Western Man, 1960, from which the title quote also comes).

Priestley is particularly interesting when he discusses Shakespeare as a fellow  dramatist.  The chapter on Elizabethan literature in Literature and Western Man discussed the practical realities of the stage of the day, ending with “But with so many plays to find, put into rehearsal, and then perform, the work, worry and strain must have been wearing; we should not be surprised that Shakespeare retired, probably worn out, before he was fifty”.  Priestley spoke from experience:  his memoir, Margin Released (1962), includes a vivid chapter on the difficulties and craziness of theatrical production.

There is much more to be said about Priestley and Shakespeare, a theme to which I hope to return.  It is rather fitting that JB’s home in later life was in “Shakespeare Country”: the beautifully-named Kissing Tree House in Warwickshire.

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