Becoming Shakespeare

The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned
a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard

By Jack Lynch

nolead ends nolead begins Walker & Co. 306 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler


For The Inquirer

nolead ends On April 23, 1879, Shakespeare's 315th birthday, Mark Gray, a dry goods clerk, sat in the dress circle at McVicker's Theater in Chicago with a copy of Richard II in his lap. Incensed that Edwin Booth was taking liberties with a sacred text, Gray pulled out a pistol and fired two shots at the stage to stop the blasphemy against a demigod.

In Becoming Shakespeare, Jack Lynch, a professor of English at Rutgers University, provides an informative account of the afterlife of the provincial playwright who became "the greatest portraitist of the human condition." Shakespeare's death in 1616, Lynch points out, attracted no public attention. When the Puritans in the 1640s shut down London's theaters and made King Charles I a head shorter than his contemporaries, Shakespeare's plays were neither performed nor printed. But along with Charles II, Shakespeare was restored in 1660 - and for more than 350 years his histories, tragedies, and comedies have been performed, studied, improved, co-opted, domesticated, forged, and worshipped.

More descriptive than analytical, Becoming Shakespeare is filled with scrumptious stories. The most brazen Shakespeare forger, Lynch reveals, was William Henry Ireland, a 19-year-old ne'er-do-well who "discovered" a chest filled with documents, including a play "in ye handwriting of Shakespeare." Vortigern, the story of a fifth-century warlord, opened at Drury Lane Theater in 1796. Attentive at first, the packed house began to hoot, howl and heckle at "the ridiculous nonsense" by the third act. When John Philip Kemble, the great tragedian, reached the line "And when this solemn mockery is o'er," he began to ham it up, to uproarious and censorious laughter. Ireland fled the country. In debt, he returned to England as "The Shakespear Phantom," selling his manuscripts, including two dozen love letters to "Anna Hatherrewaye," as "original forgeries."

For centuries Shakespeare was burlesqued and bowdlerized, as adapters appropriated the Bard to advance their own agendas - or curry favor with audiences. With no soliloquy exempt, not even "To be or not to be," low diction, forced rhymes, and sexual banter invaded Hamlet. These parodies, Lynch speculates, were not designed to ridicule. A "strange kind of adoration," akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, they commented "not on the work itself but on the reverence that surrounds it."

The same motive animated Shakespeare sanitizers. Between 1681 and 1823, King Lear ended everywhere in the English-speaking world with the monarch alive and well - and the virtuous Cordelia rescued by the valiant Edgar. In the 19th century, The Family Shakespeare, edited by Henrietta Maria Bowdler and her brother Thomas, excised impieties, innuendos, priapic puns, and bawdy barbs from every play. Bowdlerization caught on. By 1900 at least 50 "abridged" editions of Shakespeare were in print.

Even after Shakespeare's words became Holy Scripture, Lynch points out, co-opters discovered that where there's a Will there's a way. Directors set Richard III in the fascist 1930s and introduced bicycles into A Midsummer Night's Dream. As if in preparation for the Normandy invasion, Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) depicted a heroic monarch leading his people to victory in Europe. Forty-five years later Kenneth Branagh's Henry was a conflicted king, plunging England into the mud and miasma of war.

Lynch concludes that "Shakespeare's greatness depends on the collective efforts of later generations." The Bard was a "B plus" writer by the standards of his time, who would have been no better known than Francis Beaumont or Philip Massinger "had history turned out just slightly differently." Balderdash and poppycock. As Lynch acknowledges, Shakespeare changed the rules of literary evidence. Perhaps it didn't "have to happen that way." But more than just about anyone, Shakespeare acquired his reputation the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.