Shakespeare’s Prop Room- a review

McFarland & Company 2016


“Shakespeare’s Prop Room an Inventory” is hard to pin down. While at times it offers insight into Elizabethan theater life and may prove useful to theater groups, its arguments tend to be self-serving and a little questionable. If you are wondering why a book about props would propose arguments at all, let me assure you, this book offers more than a scholarly look at props; at times is reads as if the authors believe the plays to be some missing Christian gospels, which left me with a feeling of unease.

I blame Ralph Alan Cohen for setting me up. I was so eager to dive into the book after reading his foreword. In it he writes in part:

Crass considerations can get us deeper into the plays…What might a show look like? What was on stage? What were they holding? What objects are we dealing with?”

“And that is the question that Shakespeare’s props asks so well, questions that unlocks so much…It is a book that points but does not push the reader towards answers. …it is material to an understanding of the plays and matters to the production of a performance”.

I am not convinced Cohen read the entire book before he wrote the foreword. The first two chapters “Bring out your dead”, and “Off with his head” are highly enjoyable and as promised, offer some understanding of the plays; I can see both chapters as valuable material to any modern theater group looking for a deeper understanding of the norms and customs of Shakespeare’s day. But starting with chapter 3, Exit pursued by a bear” ,the book shifts focus and uses biblical passages to make the argument that Shakespeare relied heavily on the Bible for his imagery and made good use of his plays as arguments for Christianity. This is an odd argument to make, given that scholars know he used Ovid and older plays as his primary source material. The chapter is brief, (and possibly unnecessary as there are few animals in the plays) but somehow manages to talk about everything from Macbeth’s hounds of hell, to that of man taming his own inner beast, and then jumps to Caliban-is he man or fish-which somehow turns to Jonah and the whale. The author even finds the time to remind us on page 46 that, “God assures us we are made in his image, in his likeness, and like Prospero, have dominion over the fish of the sea…”

This short rambling chapter seemed so widely out of place that I had to read it twice to find any connection to the book it sits in. I am still not sure what any of this has to do with Shakespeare’s prop room.

In chapter 9, Welcome to our table”, the authors state “Behind every dinner lurked the last supper”. So much for Cohen’s claim that the authors points but does not push the reader towards answers. As part of their biblical argument the authors cite Jan Kott, a critic known to have interpreted the plays in light of existentialism, and his own personal experiences. The choice of Kott seems a little odd until one realizes he is used to bolster the authors’ Shakespeare/Christian argument.

A few chapters later we return to talking of props and their use with no mention of Christian leanings. As I read these later chapters, it dawned on me that the two authors may not have collaborated much. Perhaps each took a few chapter subjects and wrote separately. If this were true it would go a long way to explain why some chapters tend towards the utilitarian use of props while others towards the Bible as a metaphorical prop in Shakespeare’s plays.

If you sift through the biblical references and table some of the arguments for later, you may enjoy the book as a theater prop guide. Be warned, it is not the book Ralph Alan Cohen read, which is too bad because that book sounds amazing.

I received this book from Librarything’s Early Reader program in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Prop Room- a review”

    1. Well, as I said in my post about the dumbing down of Shakespeare, it appears any book with the word “Shakespeare” in the title is bound to be published by someone, no matter how dull or slipshod.

      Liked by 2 people

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