July 2007

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife that Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard by Jack Lynch

Books about Shakespeare -- his life, his identity and his plays -- could fill a small library. Scholarly debate has raged for centuries over Shakespeare’s true identity, as well as the literary and political significance of his plays. Jack Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard is different -- it is a book about how the cultural phenomenon of Shakespeare happened. Lynch, a professor of English at Rutgers University, not only knows his history but also writes an accessible and fascinating book.

During his lifetime, William Shakespeare was a popular but mainstream playwright and poet, certainly not considered to be on par with many of his peers, such as Ben Jonson. The circumstances of his funeral were not even recorded. Today Shakespeare is a symbol of English literature, nearly above negative criticism, and his plays are among relatively few that transcend time and place: they have been reset in Nazi Germany, urban American high schools, and almost any other setting imaginable.

After Shakespeare’s death and the posthumous folio publication of most of his plays by some of his friends, his plays slowly fell out of favor on the stage. Like today’s audiences, the young people of the early 17th century wanted to see modern playwrights. Then, abruptly, no one performed Shakespeare in England at all. Under Oliver Cromwell, theatre was banned as immoral and licentious.

When the monarchy returned theatre did as well, and thus began Shakespeare’s renaissance. Lynch vividly describes the changes in theatre -- including women on stage, the beginning of naturalistic acting, the gentrification of the audience due to increased prices, and an increasing respectability for certain types of theatre -- that took place in England during this time, all of which contributed to the renewed popularity of Shakespeare.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Shakespeare’s plays were also treated as literature. This presented new problems: since they were intended for stage performance, rather than reading, various versions did not agree, and certain sections also did not make sense. It was common for editors to simply remove or rewrite portions they did not understand or did not like -- Alexander Pope even stated that he removed everything that he did not find to be good, as it must not be Shakespeare’s.

This perception of Shakespeare as perfect -- the imperfect and lowbrow must not be truly his, and his work may be analyzed but not criticized negatively -- grew quickly. At the same time, the field of literary criticism and analysis based on historical and linguistic context rather than the editor or critic’s taste was beginning to take shape. This field ultimately gave us the relatively consistent, heavily annotated editions of Shakespeare we have today.

For the first few centuries after Shakespeare’s death, it was common to rewrite his plays in whole or in part, even changing endings (a version of King Lear with a romance and a happy ending was quite popular). It was also common to attribute new plays to Shakespeare in a form of reverse plagiarism, capitalizing on the “Shakespeare brand.” Shakespeare was Bowdlerized (literally, by the Bowdlers themselves), censored, and generally “tidied up.” Apologists claimed that it was clear Shakespeare only tacked on the “low humor,” puns and sexual references under pressure to please Elizabethan groundlings. Even when requiring “tidying,” Shakespeare himself was now beyond reproach.

Lynch culminates Becoming Shakespeare with an account of the massive tercentennial celebration in 1864 of Shakespeare’s birth. Throughout, Becoming Shakespeare is packed with intriguing historical tidbits worked into the overall narrative of how the English theatrical and literary scene evolved from 1616 to 1864.

Becoming Shakespeare is an absolute must for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but it will also appeal to readers with an interest in theatre, literary criticism, or just a wonderful historical tale.

Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard by Jack Lynch
Walker & Co.
ISBN: 0802715664
320 Pages