Fame after Death

Becoming Shakespeare     by John T. Lynch


viii + 306 pp, Walker & Co NY 2007  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      If you last saw or read a Shakespeare play because it was a required study at high school or college, maybe this is not your book. But for a playgoer, a lover of literature or of history, or for anyone who appreciates the Bard, here is a rare treat. This book traces the rise of Shakespeare's reputation after his death, from a relatively minor figure in Elizabethan society to a cultural icon admired across the world, while also telling about many of the persons who had a hand in the process.

    At the time of his death, Shakespeare was viewed as not particularly important. Certainly, he was the most successful playwright in a particularly vibrant era of English drama. But theatre was just public entertainment, not even regarded as high-class. No play in Shakespeare's own hand survives, and though various "Quarto" editions of his plays appeared during his lifetime (differing in many details), they seem to have been assembled from notes given to actors. Anyway, plays in those days were meant to be watched, not read, by a public which was largely illiterate.

    We know that Shakespeare retired to the "New Place" in Stratford-upon-Avon and that he died there on April 23, 1616. He was buried in a local church, and his epitaph famously ends in "cursed be he who moves my bones." We also have his will, leaving his wife Anne his "second best bed." But of his death and funeral nothing is known, perhaps because chroniclers of the time did not think he was important enough. The house was demolished nearly 200 years after his birth, its owner trying to save on taxes and annoyed by the constant stream of visitors coming to view it (that owner also chopped down the mulberry tree Shakespeare had planted nearby). At the time of his death Shakespeare's plays were scattered, and only 7 years later did two of his acting company, Heminges and Condell, collect them and publish a large "Folio" version to serve (more or less) as an official record.

    A second Folio appeared 9 years later, but performances of the plays themselves became fewer and fewer, and ended altogether when the Puritans gained power in 1642 and banned stage performances as vulgar and promoting immorality. Acting companies were disbanded and no new actors were trained until the restoration of monarchy, when in 1660 Charles II reversed the ban and two years later awarded royal charters to two competing companies.

    With the restoration, theater thrived again, and Shakespeare's pre-eminence was gradually recognized. Actors often remained baffled by his obscure wording, leaving it to playwrights to guess the proper replacement. Some questions remain to this day--but such is also the case with parts of the bible, another significant document based on fragmented sources. The most scholarly editing was that of Samuel Johnson, whose eight volumes appeared in 1765, with ample footnotes discussing conflicting interpretations.

    In the 1700s, the plays and actors who performed in them--David Garrick for instance--reaped public acclaim, but not everything Shakespeare wrote was equally appreciated, and "corrected" versions abounded. One particular target was "King Lear," a downer of a story with a particularly tragic ending: for a long time the public preferred a rewritten version with a happy ending. Other plays attributed Shakespeare were forgeries. His style also aroused controversy, abounding in subplots at a time when accepted doctrine, especially in France, favored a single central plot served by all parts of the play. However since England was often at odds with France (if not at war), viewers there argued subplots in a play were actually a virtue, a view still held.

    And then there were the vulgar scenes and raunchy language. Originally Shakespeare's plays were entertainment for the masses, and audiences loved salty language--one reason for the dim view of theatre held by Puritans. More genteel performances later discreetly omitted the sexy innuendos, and even I remember my English teacher, Miss Engel, skipping the porter scene in "Macbeth," arguing it was probably added later, that Shakespeare could never have written it. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta came up in the early 1800s with a cleaned up version "in which nothing is added to the original text .... but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." Their version is now of interest to scholars only, but they enriched the English language by a new word--to "bowdlerize" now means to alter a text by removing its racy passages.

    By then English culture had changed tremendously and in particular, literacy became widespread. More people now read Shakespeare's plays more than watch them performed. Reading is a slower but more thorough process, and through it the genius of Shakespeare became more widely appreciated, as were his poems. For such readers Charles Lamb in 1806 published "Tales from Shakespeare, Designed for the Use of Young Persons." It was mostly the work of his sister Mary, but she could not be mentioned, because in a fit of madness in 1796 she stabbed her mother to death. She was judged insane and placed in her brother's custody.

    Such are just a few of the twists and turns in the posthumous elevation of Shakespeare. Read this book to get the fuller account.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 17 August 2007