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When Shakespeare Died

‘The Three Witches Appearing to Macbeth and Banquo’; xpainting by Henry Fuseli, circa 1800–1810
Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images
‘The Three Witches Appearing to Macbeth and Banquo’; xpainting by Henry Fuseli, circa 1800–1810

To the Editors:

Professor Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare’s death in 1616 was “even locally…scarcely to have been noted” [“How Shakespeare Lives Now,” NYR, April 21]. He adds that it was not until 1623 that Shakespeare’s works were gathered together in the First Folio and it was only then that Ben Jonson described Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time!” Professor Greenblatt adds, “No one proposed that [Shakespeare] be interred in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer or Spenser.” These conclusions are refuted by the best available evidence.

First, it is widely acknowledged that there were delays in the publication of the First Folio as the compilers needed time to obtain permissions from copyright holders for the inclusion of a number of the plays. Thus it is entirely possible that Ben Jonson wrote his tribute to Shakespeare years before the First Folio was published.

Second, Professor Greenblatt ignores William Basse’s elegy “On the Death of William Shakespeare,” which Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor observed was “enormously popular, surviving in a multitude of manuscripts” (William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 163). Basse’s elegy asked that Spencer “lie a thought more nigh to learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumont lie a little nearer Spenser, to make room for Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb” in Westminster Abbey. Jonson obviously had that elegy in mind when he states in his First Folio tribute, “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room: thou art a monument without a tomb….”

Accordingly, Shakespeare’s death did not go unremarked in England. It was recognized immediately upon his death as important as the passing of Chaucer, Beaumont, and Spenser.

Melvyn R. Leventhal
New York City

Stephen Greenblatt replies:

I am grateful to Melvyn Leventhal for reminding us of William Basse’s elegy. But a manuscript poem of uncertain date, not appearing in print until seventeen years after the playwright’s passing, hardly constitutes evidence of widespread public lamentation “immediately upon his death.” My point was not, as anti-Stratfordians sometimes claim, that Shakespeare was a virtual unknown. In his lifetime Shakespeare was very well known indeed: a character in a play performed by Cambridge students declares that he will “worship sweet Master Shakespeare and to honor him will lay Venus and Adonis under my pillow”; a dozen of his plays were listed in minister Francis Meres’s 1598 survey of the literary scene; his name was featured as a selling point on the title page of many quartos of his plays. I observed simply that, though he is now the supreme global artist, Shakespeare’s death in 1616 was not immediately noted on a national let alone international scale as a highly significant one.