When you think of inner-city teenagers, what springs to mind? For many, it’s hoodies, video games – and probably hating Shakespeare. But my research proves that this stereotype is far from the truth.
Shakespeare holds a contested place in the English national curriculum as the only compulsory writer to be studied between the ages of 11 and 16. This imposed curriculum attempts to situate Shakespeare’s plays as part of national culture, rather than purely as an exemplar of high art. But teens are rarely asked directly about their experiences of education, and about its relevance to them.
However, my research with over 800 students in four London secondary schools offers a very different picture. I asked these 13 to 14-year-olds what they think and/or feel when they hear the word “Shakespeare” – and some of their answers defied expectations.
What students say
Many students told me that they actually enjoy studying Shakespeare in school. From comments such as “I feel happy because I like most of his plays”, to “I feel excited because Shakespeare was the best writer ever […] a legend or genius”, they expressed levels of interest in Shakespeare that are rarely acknowledged.
These students also did not see the language as a barrier, but as a challenge to be embraced. One commented: “I also get quite happy because we do not often look at texts with old English.”
In this large cohort of students, some comments stand out, showing how varied and individual their responses are. One described Shakespeare as “one of my inspirations for writing poetry”, while another said that “although I don’t really like English, I like his plays a lot”.
Teachers seem to play a key role in developing a positive attitude in some of their students. One student said that “all the work I’ve done on Shakespeare has been interesting and fun”, while another said she “really enjoyed the last play that we did”.
This study did not look in detail at what actually happens in the classroom, but many of the students’ comments suggest that having the confidence to approach a Shakespeare text with a positive attitude partly comes from the teacher’s attitude to him and his work.
‘Be not afraid of greatness …’
In addition to the wholly positive comments, some students demonstrated a more mixed response to the subject. One student told me that “sometimes it’s interesting and sometimes it’s just boring ‘cause in Year 7 I remember we did this one play for a very long time and it was just kind of the same thing every lesson for a double lesson”.
Here, the lessons were clearly not varied enough to hold this student’s attention all the time, although the comment suggests that the student knew that studying Shakespeare could be interesting and fun, even if it isn’t always like that in practice.
For others, the choice of play is key: “Some Shakespeare plays are more interesting than others, in my opinion.” One of the students I interviewed also articulated a clear tension in her attitudes towards studying Shakespeare. She said:
The good part is because everyone goes through different stuff, some people can relate and they can feel like they’re not alone or like this has happened before and studying Shakespeare makes you see the world differently, […] and the bad thing about it [is] learning how to write in the Shakespeare kind of structure when it won’t be useful in the future.
For a number of students, there are perhaps inevitable negative connotations attached to the word “Shakespeare”. Some did describe Shakespeare simply as “boring”, but others explained their reservations in more detail. One said: “I feel like I’ve heard the word Shakespeare too much and that I don’t want to talk about him.” Another thought “about long complicated language that no one understands”, while further complaints were about how “it is unnecessary to learn about as I don’t understand what’s beneficial for us as students”.
Overall, the students involved in this research demonstrated a breadth and depth of response to Shakespeare that counters the generalised belief that teenagers respond poorly to his work. Indeed, used as an introductory question to establish students’ attitudes to Shakespeare before attending a production at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in London, I have been fascinated by the variety and subtlety of thought they have demonstrated.
As one said: “I feel honoured that I’ve covered Shakespeare in school, because telling people you have read his plays makes you sound smart.” The sense of privilege inherent in this comment, despite the fact that everyone studies Shakespeare at school, is clearly something to cherish.
It’s hard to imagine a more literary or successful author than William Shakespeare, formerly of Stratford-upon-Avon. Around the world his plays are widely taught and expensively performed. Journalists and scholars look to him for social and political insights. In Washington DC, notionally the capital of the free world, the Folger Shakespeare Library stands near the Capitol building and the Library of Congress as a grand memorial to the Immortal Bard.
Is there another author whose reputation could ever rival Shakespeare’s? Certainly not from the 16th century, nor the 17th. Perhaps Johnson or Swift from the 18th? Austen or a Brontë from the 19th? Woolf, Joyce or Hemingway from the 20th? There are contenders, to be sure, but no one has put Shakespeare in the shade.
And yet there is a problem with Shakespeare.
Johnson, Austen, the Brontës, Woolf, Hemingway and Joyce all left behind evidence of their authorial lives. We can study diaries, letters, manuscripts, even juvenilia – a fulsome literary paper trail. With Shakespeare, though, the trail is meagre. Most of what we know of his life has come to us from arid official records, or via cryptic comments from contemporaries who hint at something mysterious or disreputable in the background.
What we notice most starkly is a documentary gap, one that people have attempted to fill in all manner of ways – by contacting Shakespeare through seances, or searching tombs and riverbeds for hidden manuscripts, or probing for secret messages in the plays, or positing all manner of “secret author” theories. According to those theories, William Shakespeare of Stratford was just a frontman for the true author of the Shakespeare oeuvre.
Many credible writers and scholars have embraced Shakespearean heresy. Disraeli, Emerson, Freud, William James, Mark Twain, Orson Welles and Walt Whitman all doubted Shakespearean authorship. Henry James was “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world”.
The heretics are right to be sceptical. Apart from the documentary gaps, there are good reasons to doubt Shakespearean authorship of at least some of the plays. They were published by men with a track record of fraud, and the printed versions conceal much about how they were produced, including the role of collaborators.
Fundamentally, though, the heretics are wrong. Thanks to four centuries of scholarship, we know William Shakespeare was an author. And we know a great deal about what kind of author he was.
Gerard Langbaine’s Dramatick Poets includes this anecdote about Titus Andronicus:
…the Play was not originally Shakespear’s, but brought by a private Author to be acted, and [Shakespeare] only gave some Master touches to one or two of the principal Parts or Characters: afterwards he boasts his own pains; and says, That if the Reader compare the Old Play with his Copy, he will find that none in all that Author’s Works ever receiv’d greater Alterations, or Additions; the Language not only refined, but many scenes entirely new: Besides most of the principal Characters heightened, and the Plot much increased.
The first significant reference to Shakespeare as a dramatist – Robert Greene’s famous “Shake-scene” attack – is a complaint about him taking credit, as an “upstart crow”, for the writings of others. There is other evidence, too, that much of his work consisted of revising and retouching plays by other people.
What did it mean for a play to undergo the Shakespeare treatment? We know the answer to that, too. It seems a lot of the treatment involved sexing things up.
Today, William Shakespeare’s surname is utterly respectable. In the 16th century, however, the name had very different connotations. It was an old and earthy name, even a rustic one, akin to “Sheepshanks” and “Silcock” and “Wetherhogg”. His peers were always making fun of his provincial origins. People spoke of his “killcow conceit” – simultaneously an allusion to his father’s humble position in the Warwickshire leather trade, and a suggestion that Shakespeare’s cobbled-together plays were heavy with crude imagery.
The name “Shakespeare” had another connotation as well. Shakespeare’s first reputation was as a poet, and particularly as a sex poet. In his three main books of poetry – Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and the Sonnets – bawdy and erotic content is paramount.
Shakespeare made his first appearance in print with Venus and Adonis. Published in 1593, that book immediately earned a salacious reputation as an aid to what Michael Schoenfeldt called “solitary pleasure”. It is referred to in the anonymous Parnassus plays (1598–1602), in which the character Judico expresses love for the poem and its sweet, “hart throbbing” lines, and the character Gullio promises to “worship sweet Mr Shakespeare, and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillow”.
John Davies’ 1625 A Scourge for Paper Persecutors also mentions the poem, and suggests another way to enjoy it:
Making lewd Venus with eternall lines
To tye Adonis to her loves designes:
Fine wit is shown therein, but finer ’t were
If not attired in such bawdy geer:–
But be it as it will, the coyest dames
In private reade it for their closet-games.
Samuel Johnson would later list Venus and Adonis as one of the most scandalous and corrupting poems of the late 16th century.
He sex and she sex
William Shakespeare was very much alive above the ears and below the waist. A surprisingly high proportion of the documentary trail concerns his racy and bawdy exploits.
An important anecdote, from John Manningham’s 1601 diary, concerns a performance of the play we now call Richard III. Richard Burbage played the king and caught the attention of a beauty in the audience. The lady was so impressed by Burbage’s performance that she invited him to her home that evening — as long as he promised to stay in costume and character. Shakespeare got wind of the assignation and went first to the lady’s residence. Burbage arrived at the appointed time but Shakespeare was already inside, being “entertained and at his game”.
When the lovers were informed that Burbage was at the door, a triumphant Shakespeare sent his colleague a mischievous reply that contained a sharp lesson in English history. “William the Conqueror,” he said, “was before Richard the Third.”
Jane Davenant, mistress of the Crown Tavern in Oxford, is rumoured to have been another of Shakespeare’s lovers. Her son William, the future poet laureate, inferred on multiple occasions that Shakespeare was his father in more than just a poetical sense.
By the time Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609, they were somewhat old-fashioned and enjoyed little success. But an earlier manuscript version had circulated in the 1590s. According to the clergyman Francis Meres, Shakespeare’s “private friends” had devoured these “sugared sonnets” with relish.
Today, no copies of the Sonnets manuscript are known to exist. An enduring fantasy for bibliophiles and book-hunters, the manuscript is also a puzzle. The printed edition is a fascinating shandy of hetero- and homosexual flavours. Apart from being more raw and racy, the manuscript Sonnets may have been differently organised, perhaps into sections according to whose appetites were being served. The manuscript may also have included more prefatory matter – such as a letter from the author – that explained what he was up to.
Printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays started appearing in the mid-1590s, but not until 1598 did they carry his name on their title pages. The men and women who bought these thin quarto editions knew exactly what to expect. They had already been conditioned by the outputs of William Shakespeare, sex poet.
Like those of his closest peers – men such as Greene and Christopher Marlowe – Shakespeare’s plays are noteworthy for their bawdy and disreputable content. Everyone knows the scene from Othello in which Desdemona and Othello make “the beast with two backs”. There are hundreds of comparable examples. In Hamlet, the prince and Ophelia trade spicy banter:
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Falstaff’s speech in Henry IV Part 2 speaks of Justice Shallow in terms such as these:
…the whores called him mandrake: [he] came ever in the rearward of the fashion, and sung those tunes to the overscutched huswives that he heard the carmen whistle.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Adriano de Armado makes a striking confession about the king:
…it will please his grace, by the world, sometime to lean upon my poor shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally with my excrement, with my mustachio; but, sweet heart, let that pass.
OK let’s not get too carried away: “excrement” probably meant “beard”, but the contact is still intimate.
Passages of this flavour are what Shakespeare’s contemporaries meant when they said he wrote in a raw manner, “from nature”. And they are what Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler removed to make their 19th century Family Shakespeare. (They excised, for example, the “beast with two backs”.) Johnson wasn’t far from the Bowdlers in his views about the raw parts of Shakespeare. “There are many passages mean, childish, and vulgar; and some which ought not to have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden Queen.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was probably more vital and bawdy than its predecessor version, possibly written by Thomas Kyd and now lost. Certainly Shakespeare’s King Lear is racier and more involving than the anonymously authored prior play, King Leir, which was registered in 1594.
The Bard had good reason to rev things up. Playwrights sometimes shared in the extra profits from the performance of successful plays. Writers were smart to add spicy content that would appeal to audiences from all classes.
Apart from adapting earlier plays, Shakespeare took material from histories and poems and novels. His extensive use of sources shows there was no “secret author” behind the scenes who reliably fed him texts. His own library of sources performed that role.
Shakespeare’s personal collection of books and manuscripts has never been found, but one conception of it is compelling: an erotic library rich with imported Dutch and Italian smut along with English works such as Thomas Cutwode’s scandalous The Bumble-Bee (1599) and Giles Fletcher’s equally disreputable Licia, or Poemes of Love (1593).
The field of Shakespeare studies is all about mystery and discovery. There are many uncertainties about Shakespeare, but his achievement as a libidinous “sexer upper” allows us to put one precious stake in the ground.
Although sex is the unlikely key to understanding Shakespeare’s achievement as an author, for a long time the academy shunned his racy side. That side was not, however, wholly overlooked.
The New Zealand-born lexicographer Eric Partridge compiled the remarkable Shakespeare’s Bawdy (1947), which presents, among other things, scores of Shakespearean synonyms and euphemisms for vagina. Nothing Like the Sun (1964) by the novelist Anthony Burgess is “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life”; the covers of the Heinemann hardback and the 1966 Penguin softback show Shakespeare with his mistress, the mysterious “dark lady” of the sonnets.
Still, the Shakespeare of Partridge and Burgess is very different to the respectable, mainstream one. How did Shakespeare pull off the transformation from sex poet to literary monument?
Even in his lifetime he was shape-shifting, from boisterous lyricist and tearaway playwright to old-fashioned sonneteer and retired bookman. In the decade after his death, men tidied up his authorial legacy – and possibly added to it – but Shakespeare was still one writer among many, his reputation on a par with those of Marlowe and Middleton, and behind those of Jonson, Milton and Spenser.
But Shakespeare was tailor-made for the Romantic and Victorian eras, whose actors, scholars and hacks embraced and refashioned the Bard. Bowdlerising editors cut many of the ruder bits and added happier endings. By the 20th century, Shakespeare’s preeminence was immutable, his works as sublime and respectable as Beethoven’s symphonies or Mona Lisa’s smile. Things, though, could have been very different.
Professor Stuart Kells is the author of Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Text Publishing).
“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare once wrote.
In recent weeks, that Shakespearean adage has been particularly resonant, with the New York Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” attracting worldwide scrutiny because of the staged likeness between Caesar and President Trump.
Extolling the play as a masterpiece about power and political violence, director Oskar Eustis persuasively defended his interpretation as a warning about “what happens when you try to preserve democracy by nondemocratic means.”
In some ways, the contention – even rancor – of these debates about the Public Theater production would have delighted, and perhaps bemused, Shakespeare. They articulate the richness and urgency of our own democratic struggles – similar to the rich political complexity reflected in Shakespeare’s text itself.
Caesar in Shakespeare’s times
As Shakespeare wrote the play, he drew on Roman history, a popular topic in 16th-century England. But he was also commenting on the political conflicts of the era. The power struggles depicted in “Julius Caesar” mirrored ongoing concerns in England with legitimacy, tyranny and potential threats of rebellion and deposition against Queen Elizabeth I, who did not have an heir. These anxieties were also exacerbated by historical memories of the English Civil War, also called the War of the Roses, going far back as the deposition and death of Richard II.
Shakespeare’s Rome is a place of brutal struggles between democratic ideals and human ambition. The assassination of Caesar is one of the most important events in Roman history, and Shakespeare had inherited over 1,600 years of ambiguity, with little consensus over whether Caesar’s killing was justified. He incorporated these debates into his play, offering his viewers multiple perspectives on the characters. Caesar is either a heroic, benevolent ruler or tyrant; Brutus is either a patriot or assassin.
Shakespeare’s Caesar is clearly a leader and politician with power – including some vanity and propensity to flattery – but also with wide popular appeal. When he returns triumphant from wars, the conspirators fear he will become a tyrant, a “Colossus” whereby the “wide walls” of Republican Rome “encompass’d but one man.”
Yet he seems to love and trust his fellow Romans, warmly inviting Brutus and other conspirators to share wine. And we also learn he bequeaths to his people, on his death, his personal possessions: To every Roman citizen he gives “seventy-five drachmas” and “all his walks, His private arbours and new-planted orchards” for public use.
Shakespeare also gives Brutus, the leader of the assassination plot, a refined conscience throughout the play. It’s evident in the many discussions Brutus has with his fellow conspirators, and it’s summed up when he describes his motivation for killing Caesar: “If then [any] friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, then my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less but that I loved Rome more.”
“Julius Caesar” offers a complicated, even poignant vision at the end. It ends in civil war and the defeat of the conspirators, following their internal dissensions and accusations of betrayal. Brutus commits suicide, but Mark Antony and Octavius, Julius Caesar’s grandnephew, victorious at the end, acknowledge Brutus’s nobility and wish to bury him with honor. Toward the close of Shakespeare’s next Roman play, “Antony and Cleopatra,” we see Octavius Caesar emerge as the singular ruler of Rome. Importantly, then, the Republican, democratic ideal is defeated, both in the play and in the Western world (until the American Revolution).
A deeply democratic offering
Overall, this picture of a divided Rome – a mix of power politics, of stoic ideals giving way to ego – should give pause to modern audiences. From the shifting perspectives on competing ambitions we learn that all rigid value judgments of “good” and “evil” politicians can be relative – and problematic – in our contingent world.
Yet, the ideals of democracy – in Rome and in our own times – have to be constantly guarded against demagogues, who also may be idealists, of all political stripes. Productions of “Julius Caesar” have typically evoked topical political analogies. Even seemingly traditional, period productions, such as the current Royal Shakespeare Company’s version in Britain, resonate with topical relevance, enabling the audience to deduce connections to today’s political climate.
It may be true – as some have suggested – that the analogy between Julius Caesar and Donald Trump is a bit forced. Regardless, the production is, as one reviewer put it, “a deeply democratic offering, befitting both the Public and the public – and the times.”
As a researcher and teacher of Renaissance drama, I’ve studied Shakespeare’s role as a cultural icon across different societies, cultures and eras. It seems that no matter where (and when) his works are being performed, they provide us with a complex, poetic language for imagining and interpreting the intractable world in which we live.
During politically contentious times, it’s befitting that we turn more – rather then less – to Shakespeare.
This year marks 400 years since the publication of the first volume of poet and playwright Ben Jonson’s collected texts, the first complete English translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, by poet and translator George Chapman, and the Political Works of King James I, arriving a few years after the King James Bible. Little would contemporaries have guessed that 400 years later these momentous works would be eclipsed by a death in Warwickshire – one William Shakespeare.
It seems now that every Shakespeare anniversary must be marked by a tide of special performances, exhibitions, biographies (even including this year one promised from Boris Johnson) and the usual mugs, T-shirts, commemorative coins, cakes – and the London Book Fair offering “the Shakesperience”. Each day, announcements of new anthologies of Shakespeare criticism or “essential” reference volumes flop into the inbox like exhausted seals in search of a suitable rock. We’re in danger of being “bard to death” by it all.
Let’s not quibble: Shakespeare’s work is fabulous. The plays fill us with curiosity and excitement. They force us to think and rethink every time we encounter them on the page, on the stage, in the cinema, or stumble again upon some previously unregarded corner of the canon. Each time it feels like we have grown new ears. But the tsunami of studies, rehashing of critical material, and general commercialisation of “Brand Shakespeare” is exhausting. Do we really need a Shakespeare themed flowerpot to coincide with the 400th anniversary of his death?
We have seen how Stratford-upon-Avon has become a newly-Disnified site of literary pilgrimage, but while this endless Shakespearification (perhaps Shakespeari-fiction?) intends to commemorate a man’s great work, it drowns out much of the complexity of reconstructing earlier lives. Indeed, the sun of Avon threatens to blot out all the other voices, lives, and achievements – not only of 1616, but also the incredible richness of the entire late 16th and early 17th centuries’ creative culture.
The sexual scandal revealed by the trial of the Earl and Countess of Somersetlink for murder and adultery has given us insights about how news spread, how the personal and political intermingled, how women – even those of the elite – could be treated during that era, and perhaps even marked the start of the de-legitimisation of the Stuart monarchy.
In 1616 Pocahontas was in England, while, from the court of Jahangir in India, Sir Thomas Roe wrote to the Countess of Huntingdon on linen paper, the start of the rise of the East India Company. Yet all this variety – and so much more – gets ridden over in the Shakespearean stampede.
Putting English literature on the map
The paradox of celebrating the death of a man whose works fascinate us points towards the other great event of 1616, the publication of The Works of Benjamin Jonson. Scholars argue as to whether this truly is the first publication of vernacular English works in the collected form used by classical texts of authority and significance. But by locating English culture in relation to European literature and the Greek and Roman classics, The Works represents the entrance of a new sense of English identity, and of the potential of English as a language.
Jonson’s Works may not have launched the age of the book but it marks the arrival of English literary print culture. Filled with complex margin notes and allusive texts, the publication of The Works also marks the coming of age of critical reading – and the sense of reading and writing as valuable in themselves because they can reshape the ways we understand the world. Jonson’s Works can be seen as the foundation text of English literature as a discipline.
Without Jonson’s 1616 text, Shakespeare’s posthumous 1623 folio is unthinkable, but also unreadable: Jonson gives us the ways to read what were formerly seen as “unconsidered trifles” as serious literature. Homer, the King James Bible, and Jonson are mentioned here from among many others because they combine the classical poetic heritage, the prose (and especially Biblical prose) tradition, and the dramatic world of London theatre, and it is these three that continue to shape so much of our literature – our world literature – today.
Of course, this group is as much a constructed product of critical and intellectual selectivity as the Shakespeare so celebrated at the moment. In 1616 these were not the most radical voices, nor were they the most silenced ones by any means. But, through the rich culture they evoke, they illustrate what can be lost by taking Shakespeare out of all context, as we seem to be doing in 2016.
When we measure the Bard’s contribution to literary culture, it’s arguably most pronounced in his depictions of the nightmarish and the otherworldly which have inspired so many over the years.
Night of the living dead
Macbeth, a play shrouded in superstition, is one of the few Shakespearean plays that earned the moniker “The Scottish Play” to avoid having to use its supposedly-jinxed title. Given the newly-crowned King James’s interest in witchcraft in the early 1600s, (James authored the treatise Daemonologie in 1597), Macbeth echoes a cultural fascination with superstition and the occult.
Hamlet begins with a “night of the living dead”: the nocturnal visit of Hamlet Senior provides the narrative thrust which leads Hamlet on to both his tragic death and one of the most overwrought soliloquies in literary history.
Like Shakespeare’s haunted Danish castle in Hamlet, a ghostly giant and a skeletal apparition populate Walpole’s Otranto. Eschewing the values of reason extolled by the Enlightenment, Walpole’s text challenged the vogue of the eighteenth century realist novel by deploying the machinations of supernatural fear. Notably, Walpole acknowledged the influence of Shakespearean supernaturalism, citing terror as the “principle engine” of his narrative.
Terror vs horror
At the turn of the eighteenth century, the efforts of Gothic authors Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis would follow in Walpole’s footsteps. Radcliffe and Lewis drew on Shakespeare in different ways, but both cited quotes from Macbeth as epigraphs to chapters in their novels.
It’s arguably at this juncture in literary history that the differences between supernatural “terror” and “horror” become more clearly defined. Placing an emphasis on terror, Ann Radcliffe pioneered the genre of “explained supernatural”, where terrifying, seemingly supernatural events in her novels were given a realistic, rational explanation. Radcliffe mirrored the suspense and fear of modern thriller films.
On the other side of the coin, Matthew Lewis’s scandalous novel The Monk (1796) eschewed realism, infusing the genre with unrestrained, and horrific, descriptions of the supernatural. Lewis presented readers with nightmarish visions of the Devil, a succubus and individuals haunted by ghosts. The Monk’s explicitness both shocked readers and found praise with critics. Lewis was subsequently forced to censor parts of his novel, including a particularly violent closing scene that shows the antagonist’s brutal death at the hands of the Devil himself.
Lewis is also connected to the other great supernatural books of the era: he knew Lord Byron, John Polidori and the Shelleys. In August 1816, Lewis visited Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley in Geneva – had he arrived several months earlier, he would have been privy to the period of inspiration responsible for the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819).
From supernatural to sci-fi
The Victorians expanded the Gothic genre beyond supernaturalism: Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (1886) and the novels of H.G Wells showed a shift towards science fiction.
This period also gave us Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Stoker wove elements of Hamlet and Macbeth into one of the most well known and influential Gothic texts of all time.
Moving from the Victorian fin-de siècle to the 20th century, Gothic novelists have paid a consistent intellectual debt to Shakespeare in the genres of terror and horror.
Pioneer of “cosmic horror”, and the creator of the monstrous Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft, cited Shakespeare in his exposition on supernatural horror in literature. Lovecraft’s own ideas on unimaginable horror echoe Shakespeare’s Macduff’s comment on horrors that “neither tongue nor heart can convieve”.
In 2016, we celebrate 400 years of the Bard’s impact on our cultural consciousness. While Shakespeare is most often associated with “high culture” and an English literary canon, one tends to forget that he was very much an entertainer. Shakespeare’s knack for tapping into what makes people afraid is arguably one of his greatest achievements.
Almost 400 years ago, on 23 April 1616, William Shakespeare died. Perhaps the looming anniversary is what prompted a search through the library of Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, where a valuable copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) has recently been discovered.
As Eric Rasmussen predicted in 2014, the chances of more folios turning up are reasonably good. This newest folio brings the grand total of known copies to 234, out of approximately 750 originally printed. Although this latest discovery is a welcome addition, Shakespeare’s First Folio is hardly a rare book.
By contrast, latest estimates suggest that whilst 543 plays survive from the commercial theatres of Shakespeare’s London, a staggering 744 remain known by their titles or descriptions of them only. At least two of them (there might be more) were by Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Won, and Cardenio. In other words, only the minority of drama from Shakespeare’s day survives.
New research on the lost plays shows how interconnected the drama of the day was, with rival playing companies emulating each other’s successes and replicating their own blockbusters with serials and spin-off plays.
Today we celebrate Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers of all time. But the survival of his plays – including masterpieces such as Antony and Cleopatra and The Comedy of Errors – was more precarious than you might think.
Only around half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others appeared in cheap print “quarto” editions, but some of the earliest printings did not even include Shakespeare’s name on their title pages.
Titus Andronicus (1594), two of the Henry VI plays (1594, 1595), Richard II (1597) and Richard III (1597) all advertised the name of the companies who performed them, but not the playwright who wrote them.
Although the print run of plays published in quarto would have comprised several hundred, no copies of the first quarto of Hamlet were known until 1823 (we now have two copies, at the British Library and the Huntington).
Only a single copy of the first quarto of Titus Andronicus has survived (now at the Folger Shakespeare Library) – and it was only discovered in 1905, in a Swedish cottage.
The 1598 quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost says that it was “Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespere”, hinting at the possibility of an earlier publication (which may have borne the author’s name too). Remarkably, Shakespeare seems to have written a play called “Love’s Labour’s Won” (possibly a sequel or spin-off play), and that play even appears to have been printed, but has since been lost altogether.
He must have written it by 1598, when the Elizabethan schoolmaster Francis Meres praised Shakespeare as amongst the best of the English writers of comedy and tragedy, citing “his Loue labors lost, his Loue labours wonne” and other plays as examples.
In 1953, a second reference to this lost play was discovered in a bookseller’s list dated 1603. Perhaps, like the unique copy of Titus or the Mount Stuart House library’s First Folio, a copy of “Love’s Labour’s Won” will turn up in an attic or basement one day too: possibly someone has already seen it, and the likely absence of that magic word “Shakespeare” on the title page has prevented further interest.
The first edition of Henry IV, Part 1, was also nearly lost; indeed, remains mostly lost. Only a four-leaf fragment survives, having been found in Bristol, in the binding of another book. Luckily Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have been immensely popular, appearing in 9 quarto and 2 folio editions before 1660.
Occasionally a character gets lost too. A stage direction at the start of Much Ado About Nothing reads: “Enter Leonato gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his neece, with a messenger”. “Innogen” (or “Imogen”) is never heard from or seen again.
Midway through The Taming of the Shrew, the character called Hortensio is a suitor to Bianca Minola, but is frequently left out of the conversations about her known suitors; worse, another suitor, Tranio, seems to be allocated lines intended for Hortensio.
In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, his friends and colleagues assembled the collected works commonly referred to as the First Folio. The Folio “saved” some 18 of Shakespeare’s plays from possible loss, in that it printed them for the first time. Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and 14 others may never have made it to us if they hadn’t been preserved in 1623.
But printed plays from Shakespeare’s period are the minority, and we don’t know why some plays were printed and others not. Shakespeare co-wrote a play called “Cardenio” with fellow King’s Men dramatist, John Fletcher, sometime around 1613, when court records show that it was performed at Whitehall Palace.
Most scholars assume this play was based on a subplot from Don Quixote: perhaps in 1616 we should be commemorating the death of Cervantes (who was buried on 23 April 1616) and Shakespeare together.
Four centuries on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to bring us joy on stage, page, and film, thanks to their memorable characters, lines, unique words and powerful insights into the human mind. That – and the fact that so much of his work survived at all – is something worth celebrating.
An uproar ensued after it was reported that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) – southern Oregon’s 80-year-old annual theatrical extravaganza – would be commissioning playwrights to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.
The project drew jeers from Shakespearean professors, arts practitioners and others who believe passionately in the power of Shakespeare’s original texts, who abhor any attempt to “dumb down” their language.
OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch maintain that OSF is undertaking a bold, not sacrilegious, experiment. Nevertheless, howls of outrage have followed what Douhit ruefully has deemed a “career-ending” announcement for those involved.
As an educator and lover of Shakespearean drama, I remain committed to the value of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in their original language. I require my students to read Shakespeare’s plays in their original form, and through my work on the World Shakespeare Project, I’ve witnessed undergraduates in places such as Uganda, rural India and Buenos Aires enthusiastically respond to the challenge.
Yet the outrage over the OSF’s new modernization project is misguided. The organization – which is known for experimentation – is simply participating in larger, centuries-long tradition of molding, melding and adapting Shakespeare’s original texts.
Shakespeare for dummies?
Among those criticizing the new project is Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, a prominent Shakespearean scholar who maintains that “by changing the language in this modernizing way…it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of [the original] language.”
Earlier this month, before an audience at Shakespeare’s Globe, he added, “It’s a really bad idea.”
Notably, however, Shapiro (along with many others) responded quite differently to the translation of a different classic text. On Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s oft-praised 1999 rewriting of Beowulf, Shapiro wrote in The New York Times:
Examples like this add up to a translation that manages to accomplish what before now had seemed impossible: a faithful rendering that is simultaneously an original and gripping poem in its own right.
In this instance, at least, Heaney’s talent apparently overcame Shapiro’s objections to the concept.
The playwrights the company has commissioned to “modernize” the language of Shakespeare’s works may or may not achieve the majesty attributed to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. But for whatever reason, changing the language of Shakespeare remains an anathema, while the setting, costuming and theoretical conceptualization of his plays are fair game for innovation.
The hottest theater ticket in Britain at the moment, for example, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which caused similar outrage for opening with the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, rather than the traditional “Who’s there?.” By the end of previews, the speech was moved back to (one of) the places it traditionally resides. Cumberbatch’s audiences have been comparatively silent, however, about the production’s addition of modern props, like a phonograph player.
London’s Young Vic Theatre, meanwhile, is currently presenting a strong version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with a set filled with dozens of naked, anatomically correct, inflatable dolls. Like the phonograph player on the set of Hamlet, it’s unlikely that theatergoers will object to the dolls, nor will they protest the video screens employed during the performance.
But when it comes to changing the language – well, the main objection, it appears, stems from concerns that it will encourage series such as Shakespeare for Dummies or No Fear Shakespeare, which presents original Shakespearean text adjacent to what its editors call “the kind of English people actually speak today.”
Such projects are understandable, if worrisome. Shakespeare does have a reputation for being too dense for ordinary people to easily comprehend.
At the same time, there are many remarkable projects that bring Shakespeare’s plays to even the most unconventional audiences. There’s Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, which offers prisoners the opportunities to present full-length Shakespeare plays, while former Royal Shakespeare Company artist Kelly Hunter’s project Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses Shakespearean drama as the basis for games designed for children with autism.
It’s worth noting the OSF is not planning to replace Shakespeare’s original texts during its current presentation of the complete Shakespearean canon, which will take place over the next decade.
While the company hopes that the newly commissioned versions of Shakespeare will be performed in Oregon and elsewhere, they also retain their commitment to presenting the conventional texts, albeit with regular tweaks and cuts.
As Shapiro and many others admit, Shakespearean drama has been altered, rewritten and reimagined repeatedly since the plays were first presented during the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart.
During the English Restoration, King Lear was given a happy ending. More recently, the 2001 film Scotland, Pa. offered a modern retelling of Macbeth, set at a fast food restaurant. Henry IV found itself placed among male prostitutes in Oregon in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. Even Justin Kurzel’s acclaimed new film Macbeth opens with a twist: the funeral of Macbeth’s toddler.