Stanley Wells entertained and enlightened a gathering of about 200 Thursday night in Oxford.
If not, it was certainly no fault of his own.
His readings of Shakespeare made real the elements of his lecture on “The Genius of Shakespeare,” part of the Bodleian Library and Blackwell’s Bookstore series “Marks of Genius.”
Wells, who started writing and editing books on Shakespeare in the late 1960s, mixed in his readings to demonstrate what he saw as the evidence of Shakespeare’s genius.
That genius goes beyond verbal artistry, Wells, 85, told those in the Blackwell Hall at Weston Library.
“Words are only a part,” Wells said. “Shakespeare has a chameleon quality in how he switches from character to character,” rendering them so distinctly that Alexander Pope wrote that they could be identified correctly by readers even if Shakespeare never gave them names.
That’s an exaggeration that does not apply to the minor characters, Wells said, but the words and actions in Shakespeare’s plays start building the characters.
The rest is up to the actor.
“Shakespeare seems to leave his plays purposely unfinished,” Wells said, not so much as to lose final control over them but enough that actors become authors themselves, left with a range of opportunities on how to interpret the characters.
“Actors go on wanting to perform these roles and we to see them,” he said.
While there may be more than words to Shakespeare’s genius, Wells spent much of the lecture performing those words, leading to a post-lecture question from the audience about whether Wells had ever wanted to go on stage. Another said he wanted to ask if Wells could keep reading to them.
His readings ranged from “Hamlet,” demonstrating how “tortured syntax” gave the effect of disruption, to the Mark Twain version of the Dane’s soliloquy in “The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn,” evidence of how Shakespeare permeates our culture, popping up in everything from serious adaptations to burlesque.
“To say Shakespeare is the world’s greatest dramatist is inadequate,” Wells said. His work is still alive 500 years after his death because of the meaning, values, morals, intellect, mysteries of life, shortfall of reason and worth of everyday virtue included in it.
Through it all comes Shakespeare’s “love of humanity, the heights it can reach and yet the realization it is the quintessence of dust.”