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Lead book review

William Shakespeare: all things to all men

The latest crop of anniversary books shows just what an astonishing mirror to changing culture his work can be

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

Who’s there? Shakespeare’s most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare’s birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence: 23 April is St George’s Day, a celebration of the dragon-slaying patron saint of England, and Shakespeare died on another 23 April, in 1616. It is as if he began and ended at once, and in a neatly Shakespearean twist, there is a little fiction in the festivity.

Shakespeare is today 400 years dead but nonetheless — like the ghost in Hamlet still here. He is remembered on a £2 coin, newly issued by the Royal Mint, with a skull on one side and a jester on the other. He is on display in Wolverhampton, in a sculpture as small as the full stop at the end of this sentence (it is called, inevitably, ‘To See or Not to See’). In this year’s centenary celebrations, the Globe company has taken Hamlet to 196 countries round the world. But the most common place we encounter him is the page and not the theatre, for his plays are set texts at both GCSE and A-level, and are therefore one of the few things shared by almost every schoolchild in Britain. We are a nation defined by reading Shakespeare.

In a curious stage direction, Hamlet enters ‘reading on a book’. It is a self-
conscious practice, almost a performance. Theodore Leinwand’s The Great William shows how for seven writers reading Shakespeare became an obsession. Samuel Taylor Coleridge boasted, ‘I have been reading him (almost) daily since I was ten years old’, while the American poet John Berryman claimed, ‘It’s awfully silly ever to do anything but read Shakespeare.’ ‘I shall I think never read any other Book much,’ wrote John Keats, and in his copy of the plays scribbled down a sonnet in which he promised to ‘once more humbly assay/ The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearean fruit’. For the American postmodernist Charles Olson, Shakespeare’s words were ‘candy’ that melts in the mouth.

Coleridge famously praised Shakespeare as ‘myriad-minded’; for Berryman, he was ‘that multiform & encyclopaedic bastard’.That Shakespeare looked different to each of these writers is a sign of both his variety and their narcissism, for each found in Shakespeare his own tastes reflected. For Ted Hughes, Shakespeare was a shaman and the plays were pagan rituals. Allen Ginsberg, lecturing in California in 1980, discussed the sonnets as a story of ‘sweet love’ between men. ‘Has anybody been in this relationship?’ he asked his students, and answered, ‘I have.’

Six of Leinwand’s writers are men and poets. The seventh, Virginia Woolf, is the only woman and the only novelist, and her inclusion reveals what a boy’s club Shakespeare worship can be. For the men, Shakespeare was the great father to wrestle with or the prize fish to catch, and all that posturing ends up feeling like big-game hunting. Woolf, however, was different. Because she was such a wry, ironic thinker, she saw all things from several angles, and when she looked upon Shakespeare she noticed both his triumph and what had been left out. In her famous lectures, collected in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf imagined that Shakespeare had a sister, called Judith. This sister might have been, Woolf wrote, ‘extraordinarily talented’ and yet in Woolf’s telling she ends up alone and driven to suicide by her exclusion from the world of male high culture. The story is a parable of the world’s inequalities. Woolf died by suicide 15 years after writing this, and she saw herself in the ghostly trace of Shakespeare’s tragic sister.


In Shakespeare’s works readers find the world reflected. The first collected edition of the plays was published in 1623 and has become known simply as ‘the First Folio’.Emma Smith’s Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book is a history of its readers. This is perhaps a surprising choice, as the First Folio was almost from the start too expensive to be a reading copy, and it is incomplete, lacking two plays and the poems. Smith’s title also could not be more boring. Yet — like a Shakespearean heroine — this is a fascinating and provocative book cross-dressing as a dull one. As Smith tells it, the history of the First Folio is a story of empires rising and waning, and of taste, class and money. It also reveals a curious irony at the heart of Shakespeare scholarship, and is written with an ambivalence which recalls Woolf’s.

Left: Priscilla Horton as Ariel in The Tempest, by Daniel Maclise, 1838. Right: Ira Aldridge as Othello by James Northcote, 1826.
Left: Priscilla Horton as Ariel in The Tempest, by Daniel Maclise, 1838. Right: Ira Aldridge as Othello by James Northcote, 1826.

Smith calls the folio an ‘awkwardly valuable book’, so the first question is: how much? Its original, unbound price was 15 shillings. One sold for £4.3 million at Christie’s in New York in 2001, and their insurance premiums are now so high that it is inconvenient for public institutions to own them. This is odd because, as Smith reminds us, ‘The First Folio is not a very rare book.’ There are more than 230 copies in the world, and to prove her point, a new one was discovered earlier this month. It was found in a stately home on the Isle of Bute, west of Glasgow, and made newspaper headlines.

From the beginning it was a prop for fashionable men. Smith opens with one early owner, who bought his First Folio along with a ruby earring and an alarm clock (the alarm clock cost four times as much as the folio). In the 18th century, copies were owned by English aristocrats, then in the 19th century they passed into the hands of industrialists. American collectors bought them in the first half of the 20th century, and then in the 1980s they were selling in Japan. The First Folio follows global finance. The man who built the tallest skyscraper in New York in the 1920s bought one. Paul G. Allen, the founder of Microsoft, owns one today.

Collecting is, as Smith suggests, a masculine and warlike pursuit; and these books are accessories. In all this, Smith’s secret history of the First Folio is, oddly, the opposite of literary criticism, but the First Folio is in many ways the opposite of a book. It is too expensive to be read or touched; it is valuable not for what it contains but for what it is. Yet the high price of Folios — and their status as a fetish object — is one sign of the wider mania for Shakespeare which employs so many actors and academics. In a neat twist which Smith lightly points out, textual scholarship and high culture in turn offer academic and artistic justification for the gaudy commerce in First Folios. Shakespeare makes us all complicit.

The richness of these plays, in a very different sense, is the subject of Gabriel Josipovici’s new study of Hamlet. Josipovici begins with a simple point. We encounter a work of literature in time, as it does not present itself to us all at once but requires us to sit and wait for it. Here, he attempts to recapture that experience of the play — what he calls ‘the sense of its unfolding’ — by slowly reading. He proceeds scene by scene in a curious blend of plot summary and appreciation, pointing out things which strike him as particularly lovely, and digressing generously.

Josipovici is a figure of another age: a scrupulously cultured European novelist and literary theorist. He comes from a specific tradition, and therefore his Hamlet does too. As he reads, the play reminds him of Tolstoy, Dante, Kierkegaard and Proust. One scene is, amazingly, ‘reminiscent of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven’. There are beautiful observations, and much that recalls the finest criticism of a past generation. But it all hinges upon a particular understanding of literary character: the idea that characters on stage share with the audience their feelings, and that we can therefore know them. ‘What we feel as we listen to this,’ Josipovici begins one section, is that while in the bedroom with his mother ‘Hamlet opens up his feelings to her completely’.

What makes this so strange is that the play deliberately thwarts any such possibility. Throughout Shakespeare, characters do things for inexplicable reasons. ‘Demand me nothing,’ declares the villainous Iago in Othello: ‘What you know, you know.’ His characters, again and again, refuse to state particular experience in a way which is both truthful and coherent, and this sceptical tendency finds its extreme expression in Hamlet. ‘I have that within which passeth show,’ the Prince of Denmark mocks, and ‘You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.’

This is unbearable because it is the opposite of humanism, which holds that the human self may be known and improved. It is also precisely the quality which gives these plays their true value. Shakespeare is universal, as it is so often said, but this is not because he believes in anything so sentimental as universal human experiences or truth. Instead, it is because the plays are so dazzlingly porous, and like mirrors look different in different times and places. They reflect what stands before them. ‘We are all children in the art of reading,’ writes Ben Okri in his terrific short story in the new collection Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: ‘We assume there is only one way to read a book. But a book read in a new way becomes a new book.’

This Shakespearean flexibility is beautifully revealed in the 12 short stories in this collection. Half are written in response to Shakespeare, and the other half in response to Miguel de Cervantes, who — in one more brilliant coincidence — also died on 23 April 1616. For some, Shakespeare and Cervantes offer a cast of characters, or only their names; for some, a plotline, or an atmosphere of what the Spanish novelist Soledad Puertolas calls ‘those kings out of context, those improbable scenarios, those exaggerated passions’. Throughout, fiction is only half a step away from history, and the false shades into the real. One story concerns characters remembering Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, his great play about political assassination and civil strife, in a time of equivalent violence in Colombia, and throughout the collection, novelists are reading old books and those old books are in turn reading us back. ‘Who’s there?’ asks the nervous sentry in the opening scene of Hamlet, but the answer never quite comes. Instead, in reply, another question, another mirror: ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’

The Great William: Writers Reading Shakespeare, by Theodore Leinwand (University of Chicago Press, £24.50); Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries  of an Iconic Book, by Emma Smith (Oxford University Press, £19.99); Hamlet: Fold on Fold, by Gabriel Josipovici (Yale University Press, £20); Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare, edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia (And Other Stories/ Hay Festival, £10). Daniel Swift’s most recent book is The Heart is Strange: New Selected Poems of John Berryman.


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