Book Review: Becoming Shakespeare

Becoming Shakespeare:  The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned A Provincial Playwright Into The Bard, by Jack Lynch

This book is an interesting piece of history, in that it presupposes the life and writing career of Shakespeare [1] and looks at the afterlife of his career showing how he went from a popular playwright among many to his place at the top of the writers of his age or any age.  As the author admits, this is by no means an exhaustive book.  The book includes no chapters on illustrating Shakespeare, setting his plays into operas, or the burgeoning industry of snobs who posits other writers besides William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon as the author of his plays.  Even without these additional chapters, which would have been quite worthwhile to read, this is a substantial volume that deals thoughtfully with the question of literary immortality and what it means.  This is a subject that many people have at least some interest in–even among those who do not harbor vain hopes that their own writings will be remembered fondly, and Shakespeare’s life makes a good case study for how relatively obscure people find literary immortality, as was the case for Jane Austen as well.

The contents of this book are organized in both chronological and topical fashion, extending from Shakespeare’s death to the 18th and 19th centuries, when Shakespeare’s reputation as a “classic” playwright was secure.  The first part looks at the period after his death when his career was revived through the publishing of the First Folio and the first rush of interest in Shakespeare as a writer.  After this came the period when performances of Shakespeare’s plays became more popular in the Restoration when the political context made his plays the best of what was relatively current after a long period when the theaters had been repressed.  The author turns his attention to studying Shakespeare and the textual criticism that his work underwent and still undergoes today.  After this the author looks at the matter of improving Shakespeare for his various defects, which led to a great many versions of Shakespeare that remained popular for centuries.  The author gives a very thoughtful look at the way that political regimes have long co-opted Shakespeare as an authority to support their own worldviews and agendas.  A chapter on the bowlderization and domestication of Shakespeare for women and children follows, full of intrigue in its own ways, before the author turns his attention to the careers of those who sought to forge Shakespeare writings for a variety of motives.  By the time the author has finished talking about the Shakespeare pilgrimages that mark the worship of Shakespeare as an original (if not the original) genius, the author has written a very excellent book of nearly 300 pages of material, and one that features a wide variety of material for further reading for those who are interested.

One thing that separates this book from many like it is that the author neatly sidesteps the contentious issues of Shakespeare’s biography, which has very little information and a great deal of supposal and speculation filling the place of the sort of hard textual and data-driven information that we would prefer to have and focuses on Shakespeare’s afterlife, for which there is a rich and diverse textual base.  Presuppositional apologetics is not something I am unfamiliar with when it comes to biblical studies, but this book is unusual in taking the same approach when it comes to textual studies, and in doing it well.  If one wants to make an evidence-based case, and this author certainly does, sometimes we must go where the evidence lies.  Sometimes the evidence leads us away from the shadowy depths where people engage in conflict and towards the place where we cease to argue over a mysterious past and examine our ourselves and what we demand from literature and how we judge it.  By the standards of Shakespeare’s time, he was a B+/A- kind of writer, and yet he is immortal today, a reminder of a dramatic shift in standards for theater that he was influential in creating, and at least something giving a measure of hope for writers today who ponder the circumstances of what endures beyond an author’s own era.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Becoming Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy | Edge Induced Cohesion

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