The Guardian can’t resist throwing in a snide attack on “Trump’s America” in the opening of a report on the discovery of a significant new piece of data from the life of Shakespeare, one confirming the poet’s worldly success and resulting rise to gentility.
Dr [Heather] Wolfe is a willowy, bright-eyed manuscript scholar, a paleographer specialising in Elizabethan England who in certain moods of candour might put you in mind of Portia or perhaps Cordelia. She’s also a Shakespeare detective who, last year, made the career-defining discovery that is going to transform our understanding of Shakespeare’s biography. In the simplest terms, Wolfe delivered the coup de grace to the wild-eyed army of conspiracy theorists, including Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi, who contest the authenticity, even the existence, of the playwright known to contemporaries as Master Will Shakespeare. …
Wolfe’s role as a curator at the Folger is to bring her expertise to bear on the tantalising mass of documents that survives from the late 16th century. And yet, despite a heap of legal, commercial and matrimonial evidence, Shakespeare the man continues to slip through scholars’ fingers. Four centuries after his death, apart from a handful of crabbed signatures, there is not one manuscript, letter or diary we can definitively attribute to the poet, sponsoring the pervasive air of mystery that surrounds his genius. Indeed, the most intimate surviving Shakespeare document remains that notorious will, in which he bequeathed his wife his “second best bed”.
Before Wolfe arrived on the scene, all that scholars could be certain about was that a man named Shaxpere, Shaxberd or Shakespear was born in Stratford in 1564, and that he was an actor whose name is printed in the collected edition of his work published in 1623. We also know that he married Anne Hathaway, and died in 1616, according to legend, on his birthday, St George’s Day. The so-called “Stratfordian” case for Shakespeare rested on these, and a few other facts, but basically, that was it. …
Wolfe’s appetite for manuscript corroboration has led her into many dusty corners of the Elizabethan archives. It was this research instinct that first led her to reopen the file on the coat of arms granted to Shakespeare’s father, the small-town glover, in 1596.
John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree. His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms. He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.
A much-reproduced sketch for a coat of arms crystallised Shakespeare’s hopes for legitimacy in the antique jargon of heraldry: “On [Sic: should be “Or a Bend Sable”] a Bend Sables, a Speare of the first steeled argent. And for his Crest, a falcon, his winges displayed Argent, supporting a Speare Gould …” The needy applicant also attached a motto: Non Sanz Droit (“Not Without Right”). All this, and much more, is buried in the archives of the college of arms in London. …
An adjunct to the court, the College of Heralds was not exempt from its own secret feuds. In 1602, the internecine rivalry between Sir William Dethick, the Garter King of Arms, and another herald, Ralph Brooke, burst into the open when Brooke released a list of 23 “mean persons” whose applications for crests (he claimed) had been wrongfully preferred by Dethick. When “Shakespeare the Player” found himself on this list, his campaign for social advancement seemed in jeopardy. A bitter row broke out at court between two factions. Shakespeare himself became an object of ridicule. Another rival, Ben Jonson, in his satire Every Man out of his Humour, poked fun at him as a rustic buffoon who pays £30 for a ridiculous coat of arms with the humiliating motto “Not Without Mustard”.
It’s at this point in the story that Wolfe discovered “the smoking gun”. In the Brooke-Dethick feud, it becomes clear that “Shakespeare, Gent. from Stratford” and “Shakespeare the Player” are the same man. In other words, “the man from Stratford” is indeed the playwright. Crucially, in the long-running “authorship” debate, this has been a fiercely contested point. But Wolfe’s research nails any lingering ambiguity in which the Shakespeare deniers can take refuge.
The New York Post points out that, but for the publication of his plays in the First Folio by his friends Heminges and Condell, half the plays that came down to us could have been lost.
April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The world will celebrate him as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. But his lasting fame wasn’t inevitable. It almost did not happen.
He was born in 1564 and died in 1616 on his 52nd birthday. A celebrated writer and actor who had performed for Queen Elizabeth and King James, he wrote approximately 39 plays and composed five long poems and 154 sonnets. By the time of his death, he had retired and was considered past his prime.
By the 1620s, his plays were no longer being performed in theaters. On the day he died, no one — not even Shakespeare himself — believed that his works would last, that he was a genius or that future generations would hail his writings.
He hadn’t even published his plays — during his lifetime they were considered ephemeral amusements, not serious literature. Half of them had never been published in any form and the rest had appeared only in unauthorized, pirated versions that corrupted his original language.
Enter John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends, fellow actors and shareholders in the King’s Men theatrical company. In his will he left them money to buy gold memorial rings to remember him. By about 1620, they conceived a better way to honor him — one that would make them the two most unsung heroes in the history of English literature. They would do what Shakespeare had never done for himself — publish a complete, definitive collection of his plays.
Heminges and Condell had up to six types of sources available to them: Shakespeare’s original, handwritten drafts; manuscript “prompt books” copied from the drafts; fragment “sides” used by the actors and containing only the lines for their individual parts; printed quartos — cheap paperbound booklets — that published unauthorized and often wildly inaccurate versions of half the plays; after-the-fact memorial reconstructions by actors who had performed in the plays and later repeated their lines to a scribe hired by Heminges and Condell; and the editors’ own personal memories.
Today, no first-generation sources for the plays exist. None of Shakespeare’s original, handwritten manuscripts survive — not a play, act, scene, page of dialogue or even a sentence. Without Heminges and Condell, half of the plays would have been lost forever.
They got to work after the bard’s death. At the London print shop Jaggard & Son, workers set the type by hand, printed the sheets one by one and hung them on clotheslines for the ink to dry. The process was methodical and slow, done by hand. It took two years.
When at last the First Folio was finished, it was a physically impressive object. At more than 900 pages, it had size and heft. The tallest copies, right off the press, untrimmed by the printer’s plow, measured 13½ by 8¾ inches.
Published in London in 1623, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies” revolutionized the language, psychology and culture of Western civilization. Without the First Folio, published seven years after the bard’s death, 18 iconic works — including “Macbeth,” “Measure for Measure,” “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” — would have been lost. …
Without the First Folio, his evolution from poet to secular saint would never have happened. The story of that book is an incredible tale of faith, friendship, loyalty and chance. Few people realize how close the world came, in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, to losing him.
Today, it is one of the most valuable books in the world. In October 2001, one of them sold for more than $6 million. Of the 750 copies printed, two-thirds of them have perished over the last 393 years. Two hundred thirty-five survive.
Aryeh Cohen-Wade, in the New Yorker, imagines what The Donald would do to the best-known soliloquies.
Listen—to be, not to be, this is a tough question, O.K.? Very tough. A lot of people come up to me and ask, “Donald, what’s more noble? Getting hit every day with the slings, the bows, the arrows, the sea of troubles—or just giving up?” I mean, smart people, the best Ivy League schools.
But I say to them, “Have you ever thought that we don’t know—we don’t know—what dreams may come? Have you ever thought about that?” Ay yi yi—there’s the rub! There’s the rub right there. When we shuffle off this mortal whatever it is—coil? They say to me, “Donald, you’ve built this fantastic company, how’d you do it? How?” And I say one word: “leadership.” Because that’s what it’s all about, is leadership. And people are so grateful whenever I bring up this whole “perchance to dream” thing. So grateful.
And on and on with the whips and the scorns of time and the contumely and the fardels and the blah blah blah.
Then I see a bare bodkin and I’m like—a bodkin? What the hell is this thing, a bodkin? Listen, I run a very successful business, I employ thousands of people and I’m supposed to care whether this bodkin is bare or not? Sad!
And when people say I don’t have a conscience—trust me, I have a conscience, and it’s a very big conscience, O.K.? And the native hue of my resolution is not sicklied o’er, that’s a lie! If anyone tells you that the native hue of my resolution is sicklied o’er, they’re trying to sell you a load of you-know-what. And enterprises of great pith—listen, my enterprises are so pithy. So pithy. Fantastic pith. But sometimes, hey, they lose the name of action, right? I mean, it happens—it happens.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is translating William Shakespeare into English. If that seems strange, it should, because Shakespeare wrote his plays in English. All 39 of the bard’s works have been assigned a playwright and a dramaturge, who will alter its text to create a present-day, modern English version they hope will be more accessible to modern audiences.
That’s not all that lies behind this dubious effort. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), in keeping with the spirit of modern theater, ensured that 50 percent of the artists involved are women and that 50 percent are people of color.
The mystery is: How did it come to pass that, everywhere you look in today’s America, the people in positions of power and responsibility are all the worst kind of blithering nincompoops?
The Awl describes an originalist approach to Shakespearian performance.
The language of Queen Elizabeth I’s England is often described as the most beautiful English ever spoken. It is an idealized tongue, synonymous with a golden age that followed the barbarism of the Middle Ages, preceded the chaos of the English Civil Wars, and shaped our understanding of what came after. As the historian Jack Lynch details in The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson, this idealization caught on during the 1700s, when writers and other thinkers were stricken with unprecedented self-consciousness about their native tongue. The language, Jonathan Swift wrote in 1712, had fallen victim to such evils as “Enthusiastick Jargon” and “Licentiousness”; Samuel Johnson denounced its “Gallick structure and phraseology.” The British sought pure linguistic ancestors to emulate and found them in the Elizabethans—especially Shakespeare. “In our Halls is hung / Armoury of the invincible knights of old,” William Wordsworth wrote. “We must be free or die, who speak the tongue / That Shakespeare spake.”
A fixation on Shakespeare’s English also emerged, later but no less fervently, in the United States. As interest in his plays surged throughout the 1800s, “American writers emphasized the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ roots of American culture and celebrated ‘our Shakespeare’ as a figurehead behind which a nation made increasingly diverse by immigration could unite,” the scholar Helen Hackett has written. “In particular, American English was claimed to be purer and closer to the English of Shakespeare’s time than was the language spoken in Victorian Britain.”
Still, professional directors and producers didn’t embrace what became known as Original Pronunciation, even as they sometimes resurrected other aspects of historical performances. Perhaps they considered it an archaic curiosity—but it is more likely that they didn’t know of it at all, or feared, as London’s reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre did, that it would sound so primitive that people wouldn’t understand it.
That all changed in late 2003, when a linguist named David Crystal offered to help the Globe put on three OP performances of Romeo and Juliet. A white-bearded Irishman who retired from the University of Reading in 1985 to lead a life of independent scholarship, Crystal, the preeminent detective of the modern OP community, is the author of more than 100 books—enough, and in enough editions, that even he has lost track of exactly how many—including The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.
It was not very old, having been built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s acting company, known at the time as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Shakespeare himself started out owning a single share amounting to 1/8th of the theater, but his percentage of ownership was diluted over time. He wound up owning only 7%.
The Globe was reconstructed in 1997, only 200 yards away from the location of the original theater, but new theories have grown up over the succeeding years, and there is a school of opinion that wishes the reconstruction to be torn down and rebuilt in accordance with the latest scholarship.