How Shakespeare Lives Now

John Martin: Macbeth, circa 1820
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh/Bridgeman Images
John Martin: Macbeth, circa 1820

Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616, went largely unremarked by all but a few of his immediate contemporaries. There was no global shudder when his mortal remains were laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. No one proposed that he be interred in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer or Spenser (where his fellow playwright Francis Beaumont was buried in the same year and where Ben Jonson would be buried some years later). No notice of Shakespeare’s passing was taken in the diplomatic correspondence of the time or in the newsletters that circulated on the Continent; no rush of Latin obsequies lamented the “vanishing of his breath,” as classical elegies would have it; no tributes were paid to his genius by his distinguished European contemporaries. Shakespeare’s passing was an entirely local English event, and even locally it seems scarcely to have been noted.

The death of the famous actor Richard Burbage in 1619 excited an immediate and far more widespread outburst of grief. England had clearly lost a great man. “He’s gone,” lamented at once an anonymous elegist,

and, with him, what a world are dead,
Which he revived, to be revivèd so
No more: young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Lear, the grievèd Moor, and more beside
That lived in him have now for ever died.

William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was so stricken by the actor’s death that months later he could not bring himself to go to the playhouse “so soon after the loss of my acquaintance Burbage.” It was this death that was publicly marked by him and by his contemporaries, far more than the vanishing of the scribbler who had penned the words that Burbage had so memorably brought alive.

The elegy on Burbage suggests that for some and perhaps even most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the real “life” of the characters and their plays lay not in the texts but in the performances of those texts. The words on the page were dead letters until they were “revived” by the gifted actor. This belief should hardly surprise us, since it is the way most audiences currently respond to plays and, still more, to film.

There was also a social dimension specific to the age. A grand aristocrat like William Herbert could acknowledge his acquaintance with a celebrity actor like Burbage (though his father was a carpenter) far more readily than he could show a connection to a social nonentity—a bourgeois entrepreneur and playwright without Oxbridge honors or family distinction—like Shakespeare. A hidden connection may all the same have existed: William Herbert is one of the perennial candidates for the sonnets’ “Mr. W.H.” But it would not do to display it in public.

Though Shakespeare’s theatrical artistry gave pleasure, it was not the kind of pleasure that…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.