William Shakespeare was a genius. Everyone knows it, but he became a genius only after his death. That's the surprising lesson in _Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard_ (Walker) by Jack Lynch. The author is a professor of English who is a well-known scholar of Samuel Johnson. Johnson himself had plenty of admiration for Shakespeare, but also criticism, and told Boswell that "Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault." That's the sort of candor that eventually became forbidden; by the nineteenth century, Lynch says, "Criticizing the Bard - even hinting that he was less than perfect - was becoming the literary equivalent of blasphemy." And yet, Shakespeare had been what Lynch calls a "B plus" playwright during his lifetime, a popular artist who had a lucrative career, but there were other playwrights doing the same thing. Shakespeare made no plans to have his plays published, and his friends arranged only seven years after his death in 1616 for his collected works to be printed. A second edition came out nine years later, and then there was nearly nothing. His plays were performed less often, simply because they were old fashioned, and then in the middle of the seventeenth century there was the closing of the theaters during Cromwell's rule. It could have happened that Shakespeare would take a respected place at the level of his contemporary Ben Jonson who had more critical esteem during his own life, but is now known mostly to enthusiasts of literature rather than to the masses. How is it that Shakespeare became Shakespeare?
Lynch focuses on stories about the plays and their production, appreciation, and alteration over the centuries. It starts with Shakespeare's death in 1616 which got no public attention. Shakespeare's reputation got its initial restoration by a quirk of history. The newly instituted theatrical companies, after theaters were closed down by the Puritans, needed plays to perform but nothing had been written for the stage in decades. Shakespeare's languishing works were still available, and approvable by the Lord Chamberlain, and he came into fashion again. The plays were not good enough for all the uses to which people wanted to apply them. Some felt Shakespeare's plays needed improvement in various ways. "For much of the last four hundred years," says Lynch, "they were rarely presented as he wrote them." As early as 1662, people started blending and changing the texts. Some of the changes were minor and could be charitably viewed as "a helpful tidying-up" to keep the ancient words from being a puzzle to modern ears. There were, however, more radical changes like a _King Lear_ with a happy ending, brought out in 1681 and still performed into the nineteenth century. The funniest chapter here is "Domesticating Shakespeare", making him fit to be presented to children; the the brother-and-sister team of Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler in the early nineteenth century brought out _The Family Shakespeare_, and bowdlerized versions of the play are still the ones found in some school editions.
After a chapter devoted to forgeries of Shakespeare, Lynch winds up with "Worshipping Shakespeare", concentrating on the literary pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon. Stratford was just an English town, and it was not until well after its most famous citizen had died that people came to see William Shakespeare's home. So many came to see it that they annoyed the owner of the property, the Reverend Francis Gastrell. First in 1756, he cut down the mulberry tree that Shakespeare planted in the garden (and Shakespeare may actually have done so) because so many tourists visited and wanted cuttings. (Wood from the tree, or supposed to be from the tree, became carved into trinkets that were hugely valued as icons.) Then, because he didn't want to pay taxes on Shakespeare's house (and because of continued enragements toward tourists) he pulled the house down in 1759. The home is gone, but tourists can come and see Shakespeare's burial place, and birth place, and his wife's cottage, just as did such fans as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Washington Irving. The latter enjoyed being a tourist so much that he did not mind being shown relics of dubious authenticity: "I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing." Relics and pilgrimages are tributes to religious figures, and at the end of his book, Lynch writes, "Our story is about the long process that turned a very competent playwright into a demigod who transcended the human condition." His book is an insightful examination of a peculiar history. Lynch shows we have always changed Shakespearean texts for different reasons, some of them laudable; that people through the centuries have seen fit to make even silly or inappropriate changes to these ancient works is perhaps one of the greatest of tributes the Bard has earned.