Inventing Shakespeare

Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present

by Gary Taylor
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 461 pp., $29.95

Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare's Tragedies

by Barbara Everett
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 232 pp., $39.95

Myriad-Minded Shakespeare: Essays, Chiefly on the Tragedies and Problem Comedies

by E.A.J. Honigmann
St. Martin's, 239 pp., $39.95

Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism, 1730–1830

by Jonathan Bate
Oxford University Press, (Clarendon Press), 234 pp., $55.00

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends and fellow shareholders in the acting company he had served for most of his working life, put together the first collected edition of his plays. They addressed it “To the great Variety of Readers. From the most able, to him that can but spell.” Heminge and Condell not only expected, they positively welcomed readers of “divers capacities” and, by implication, differing temperaments and social position. They were sure, however, that Shakespeare was an author “whose wit can no more lie hid than it could be lost.” He is to be read “againe, and againe,” and “if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger not to understand him.”

Ben Jonson’s famous claim, in the commendatory poem he contributed to the 1623 Folio, that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time,” came to look somewhat dubious during the Restoration. When the theaters reopened, after a hiatus of eighteen years, Beaumont and Fletcher and Jonson himself overshadowed their older contemporary, both for readers and on the stage. Most of those plays by Shakespeare that were still performed required drastic adaptation to render them acceptable to contemporary taste. In Reinventing Shakespeare, Gary Taylor argues that Shakespeare owed the recovery (and, ultimately, the enormous magnification) of his sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century reputation primarily to the London publishing house of Jacob Tonson and his heirs. In 1709, Tonson brought out Nicholas Rowe’s complete edition of the plays. There had been reprints of the First Folio, corrected or with added (mostly spurious) material, in 1632, 1652, and 1685. Rowe’s, however, was the first serious textual reexamination since 1623. It was followed by a series of other editions, all of them associated with the Tonsons, each fiercely critical of its predecessor: Pope’s in 1723, Theobald’s (1733), Warburton’s (1747), Dr. Johnson’s (1765), and Capell’s in 1768.

The Restoration practice of theatrical adaptation had involved Dryden, as well as a number of lesser talents, in the careful reworking of several Shakespeare plays. When, in the eighteenth century, Pope and Johnson also immersed themselves, this time as editors, in the minutiae of his texts, Shakespeare became an important influence upon their own work, as he had been on Dryden’s. The result, in Taylor’s view, was that by the end of the eighteenth century Shakespeare—and with him, “the defense of political and social privilege”—had been “insinuated into the network of English literature.” Like a bad tooth, or a particularly troublesome garden weed, “he could not be extracted without uprooting a century and a half of the national canon.” When a real opportunity presented itself, moreover, it was botched:

Shakespeare was not deposed because George III was not deposed; or, George III was not deposed because Shakespeare was not deposed. From 1790 on, the defense of political and social privilege was justified as a defense of the culture of the English people, and any such defense would inevitably entail…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.