Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: BECOMING SHAKESPEARE by Jack Lynch (Walker/Holtzbrinck, 2007)

This entertaining book's subtitle -- "The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard" -- seems to suggest a snarky "debunk-fest" within, but that's not what author Lynch has in mind. His simple, yet striking, point is that William Shakespeare's elevation to the pinnacle of English literature was not inevitable. Rather, it was a complicated product of historical circumstance, certain talented individuals on the stage and in the academy who made the playwright's works both aesthetically popular and a respectable scholarly target, the misguided but understandable enthusiasm of would-be "improvers" and "domesticators" of Shakespeare's often confusing and frequently racy work, and even the occasional con-artist, whose attempts to forge "new" Shakespeare material raised the creator's profile all the more. But the Bard himself contributed to his own deification (and that's not too strong a word) by reshaping the parameters of how a literary creator was to be judged, bursting through the carapace of the Aristotelian "unities" and introducing a new way of telling a story on stage.

The "Shakespeare industry" didn't really take off until the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. With the Puritan ban on theatrical performances lifted, a long-suppressed desire for play-going broke forth, and it was just at this time that a series of great Shakespearean actors, including David Garrick and the Kemble family, began to reinterpret the classic roles for a new generation that had had little to no exposure to Shakespeare on stage. The revived interest in Shakespeare's works led editors on an increasingly dogged hunt to recover the Bard's original words from the limited evidence available in the Folios and Quartos. Meanwhile, eager tinkerers played with the plays -- giving King Lear a frankly bizarre happy ending, cutting out the "naughty bits" (cf. the Bowdlers' FAMILY SHAKESPEARE, which gave a word for censorship to the language) -- and these altered versions, all clucks over censorship aside, proved enduringly popular. William Ireland's notorious attempt to hoodwink late-18th-century London with purportedly "new" Shakespearean documents, including the "lost play" Vortigern, indicated just how intertwined the Bard's works had become with English culture; the forgeries were denounced as equivalent to blasphemy. The first Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 and succeeding fetes of the Bard's birthday both cemented Shakespeare's place as the kingpin of English literature and centered the "Shakespeare industry" firmly upon Stratford-upon-Avon. Not bad for a popular entertainer (for that was what the plays were originally intended to do, after all) whose death in 1616 went almost unnoticed and who was, according to the admittedly meager contemporary evidence, not regarded as anything more than an above-average theatrical craftsman. Of course, many historical figures' profiles gradually rise over time, as the necessary perspective develops... but Shakespeare's ascent arguably tops them all. That's what happens, I suppose, when literally millions of folks are giving you the necessary "boost."
Anyone with an interest in literature in general and Shakespeare in particular should enjoy this book a great deal.

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