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Shakespeare a target of fame's slings and arrows

Before he earned his modern reputation as the greatest writer of the English language, critics called him bad, bawdy and worse.

By Nathaniel French, Special to the Times
Published August 12, 2007


Becoming Shakespeare
By Jack Lynch
Walker and Company, 280 pages, $24.95 

- - -

Shakespeare is synonymous with genius. But, as Jack Lynch points out in Becoming Shakespeare, for much of four centuries this was not the case.

No less an authority than Voltaire derided Shakespeare as having "not so much as a single spark of good taste." Lynch, a Samuel Johnson scholar at Rutgers, sets out to determine what turned Shakespeare from a "B-plus" playwright into the greatest author of the English language.

Becoming Shakespeare isn't the story of Shakespeare's life, Lynch warns. It's "a biography that begins with Shakespeare's death and runs to his three hundredth birthday." Lynch takes his readers on a tour not of who Shakespeare was, but of who we have made him.

The story is full of characters who seem straight out of Shakespeare's darker comedies, such as Mary Lamb, the writer who murdered her mother and later in life helped rewrite the plays into stories suitable for children, and improbable episodes, such as a Romeo and Juliet portrayed by a father-daughter team. But the analysis goes much deeper, examining how Shakespeare's works have been manipulated to say exactly what his various editors want them to say.

Shakespeare reshaped

Lynch illustrates the "co-opting" of Shakespeare in his discussion of two film renditions of Henry V. Laurence Olivier, directing his version during World War II, was careful to glorify the English cause, and his Henry was "even more virtuous than Shakespeare's." The grisly scene in which Henry stands outside of Harfleur and threatens to rape and slaughter all the town's inhabitants if they don't yield to him was omitted from the film, as was the epilogue that reminds the audience that Henry's conquest was in vain; his son Henry VI would forfeit all his gains during his lackluster reign.

In contrast, Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film, produced after Vietnam, when "war no longer seemed quite so heroic," featured, in Branagh's words, a leader plagued by "introspection, fear, doubt and anger." Gone were Olivier's lofty scenes of battle, replaced by Branagh's bloody, muddy slaughter, which reduces the king to tears.

Shakespeare's position as the pre-eminent English writer has a long and tenuous history. During the English Civil War of the 17th century, all plays, including Shakespeare's, were banned by the triumphant Puritans because of what was considered their lascivious, immoral content. Although the theaters were reopened during Charles II's Restoration reign, Shakespeare was not above criticism.

While today Shakespeare's words "have become our culture's holy Scripture," during the 18th century, the plays were constantly changed to meet audiences' ideas of justice. In 1681, Nahum Tate revised King Lear, cutting out the rowdy fool, adding a love story between Edgar and Cordelia and installing a happy ending in which Lear continues to rule with Cordelia at his side.

Harriet Bowdler, whose The Family Shakespeare appeared in 1807, obliterated large portions of the plays in order to sanitize the "many words and expressions . . . of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they be erased."

Birth of a literary lion

But as time went on, Shakespeare's naughtiness became a lovable quirk. The plays became a central component of literature classes. Shakespeare was translated into over a hundred languages, including Klingon, and nations vied to claim him as their own.

People paid exorbitant sums for trinkets supposedly made from Shakespeare's famous mulberry tree, and in 1769, a jubilee was held in Stratford honoring the Bard, a tradition that continues to this day.

What caused this gradual change in perception from one of a writer in need of improvement to one worthy of idolatry? With a few minor exceptions, Shakespeare's words had not changed. He continued to be bawdy and irreverent toward established dramatic conventions.

Lynch argues that we're the ones who changed. We stopped paying attention to Shakespeare's faults and focused instead on his colossal achievements: "The biggest testimony to Shakespeare's greatness may be that he changed what it meant to be great."

Speculation abounds as to what Shakespeare actually wrote, what he actually meant, and even whether he wrote anything at all. But when reflecting on Lynch's turbulent history of Shakespeare's reputation, it becomes clear that those questions may not matter.

After four centuries of controversy, revision, adoration, criticism and the occasional rewriting, Shakespeare's plays are no longer his own. They are ours, a part of who we are as a people.

Whoever he was, and whatever he intended, the author of Macbeth and Hamlet is no longer William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon. He is William Shakespeare, poet of the English language.

Nathaniel French studies economics and political science at Macalester College.



[Last modified August 9, 2007, 15:22:17]

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