I absolutely love Shakespeare and considering him a great genius of the English theater. However, if even those of us who love the Bard are honest, it must be admitted that his reputation did not spring full-blown from the Globe Theater at the turn of the sixteenth century. It took time for him to become Shakespeare as we understand him today. Professor Lynch does an excellent job at sketching out the outlines of this transition in this book.
Professor Lynch reminds us that Shakespeare, though successful in his day, was not considered the greatest playwright of his day. Johnson and Marlowe were much better regarded in most circles. Shakespeare did not adhere to the classical structure of the dramatic form well enough and he often stooped to crude humor. With the closure of the theaters during the Protectorate, it seemed very likely that Shakespeare and his works would be lost to history. Fortunately for us, the Restoration saw the rise of some of the great Shakespearean actors--Garrick, Cibber, Siddons, Kemble, etc.--who really began to move Shakespeare to the fore.
Professor Lynch also reminds us that, until the twentieth century, Shakespeare's text was not as sacrosanct as it is now. He discusses the fact that the most popular forms of Shakespeare until very recently were adaptations and bowdlerizations. (In fact, the word "bowdlerization" comes from Henrietta and Thomas Bowlder, who made a career out of deleting the "naughty bits" from Shakespeare.) Additionally, there were many attempts to forge and otherwise pass off plays as written by Shakespeare. So much so that it is difficult, even to this day, to ferret out some truths.
It may be hard for some to accept in a culture where Shakespeare is so revered, but it did not have to be so. Professor Lynch does a fine job of showing this transition from successful playwright to demigod. There may be some who feel Lynch is merely trying to bring Shakespeare down a peg but I don't see that at all. He is looking for an honest assessment and he tries to give us one. He illustrates his point well in the closing paragraphs of the book: "Shakespeare was unappreciated not because the world was stupid, unable to understand his true greatness until centuries passed. By the standard of 1650, Shakespeare really did deserve his B-plus, and not much more...the biggest testimony to Shakespeare's greatness may be that he changed what it means to be great." It shows respect to his greatness that we try to understand what really happened. This book is definitely worth reading.
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.
Professor Lynch has written a very interesting book about the steady rise--after a very slow start--in reputation and fame of the finest writer. It will be enjoyed by most general readers interested in Mr. Shakespeare.
The section at the end of this book, which the author's provides on further reading, will be quite helpful for those seeking informed guidance through the thicket of books ever available on the great Englishman.
This is a readable book about an interesting subject-- the various ways Anglo-American critics, historians, and theatrical people have viewed Shakespeare's canon since the seventeenth century. The beginning-- which describes several versions of William Shakespeare's Stratford funeral and then admits that there is not record of that funeral-- is promising, but it also points to a basic problem with how Shakespeare became Shakespeare-- the paucity of information about who Shakespeare the writer was. Calling him a provincial playwright is misleading since he didn't write in the provinces and his plays and poems are anything but provincial in the sense of narrow-minded, untraveled, or bumpkinish. But the author plays down that fact and hews to the usual establishment line that anyone skeptical of William-- whose known biography does seem provincial-- must be a kook. This entails inaccurately playing down the Shakespeare canon's reputation in its time (the author almost ignores the narratives and sonnets) and even playing down the quality of the canon.
Jack Lynch starts out be setting forth his grand plan: he will show us how a "provincial playwright" became "the universal bard." He ends the book by asserting that he has done so. The problem lies between his beginning and his end: he has no middle. There is no "there" here.
What is there consists of a superficial recitation of well-known anecdotes from theater history, much of it seemingly cribbed from sources like Oscar Brockett, and some of it not very accurately or critically. To that, he adds a small body of Shakespeariana trivia, such as analysis of two figures known for Shakespearian forgery and fraud.
There's a lot of sloppy thinking. Right from the top, how are we to understand Shakespeare as a "provincial" playwright when he spent his entire working life in the only great metropolis of his nation?
Searching for the cultural processes that transformed Shakespeare, the popular playwright of his day, into Shakespeare, a poetic master known and valued all over the world, is a very worthwhile project. I do hope somebody carries it out some day. It most certainly has not been carried out here. One finishes this book as ignorant of the nature of that process as one is at the beginning of the book. The one substantial suggestion, badly framed as the idea that "he changed what it meant to be great" might bear fruit if someone were to take it seriously and examine exactly how reception and response to the work of Shakespeare led to broadly shared changes in the conception of quality in literature. Again, I hope someone does that someday, for it has not been done here.
All in all, I see no reason to buy this book. It does not deliver on its basic promise, and it has little else to recommend it.