Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Book of William - Act II...Bye bye, Love!

Much as I enjoyed Act I of Paul Collins's The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World, which detailed the creation and dissemination of the First Folio of 1623 and its successors, Act II is even better. Herein we learn about Alexander Pope's disastrous and overwhelmingly arrogant attempt to produce a new edition of the collected works of William Shakespeare after the Fourth Folio, his war with upstart Lewis Theobald, who gleefully pointed out Pope's manifold and egregious errors in his work, Shakespeare Restored**, and how the lives and the careers of Samuel Johnson and David Garrick resulted in the canonization of Shakespeare as England's literary saint.

**The full title is Shakespeare Restored: or, A Specimen of the Many Errors, As Well Committed, As Unamended, by Mr. Pope in His Late Edition of this Poet. :)

Collins has a wonderfully fresh and droll way of telling the various stories that make up Act II and I cannot urge you enough to get a copy for yourself...if only for various pieces of doggerel that the protagonists flung at each other as they waged war over Shakespeare's works.

And if your appetite is not yet fully whetted, you have only to read how tantalizingly close we were to actually having a copy of Shakespeare's The History of Cardenio, which was last seen in Theobald's apartment off Great Russell Street where he had the gall to rewrite it (aka to "fix" it), and only preserved the horribly garbled version. Theobald may have tweaked Pope but he lost Cardenio!

Fun Fact: two publishers squabbled in the 1730s over ownership of copyright to Shakespeare's plays, and engaged in a ferocious price war in which they flooded the market, making "Shakespeare available to everyone with a few pennies in their pocket." Although Shakespeare's plays were attended by all ranks of people during his lifetime, the price of the first several folios put him out of the reaches of most of the population, until Misters Tonson and Walker started churning the plays out faster than people could buy them.

Fun Quote about David Garrick: "His rookie portrayal of Richard III had made him a name; his King Lear made him a star; his Hamlet made him immortal."

Best Thing I've Learned So Far: Samuel Johnson tackled Shakespeare after his Dictionary, and his introduction to the collected works has become the definitive introduction to Shakespeare. Somehow I was never asked to read this in school and I haven't encountered it on my own, but rest assured that it's on its way from Amazon even as we speak. The following passage, in which Collins discusses the Johnson introduction, made my heart sing...

What set Shakespeare apart from virtually every other playwright, Johnson pointed out, was that his plays were not about love. True, love was a fine thing--"But love is only one of many passions; and as it has no great influence upon the sum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet who caught his ideas from the living world and exhibited only what he saw before him." And true to the world, heroes were difficult to discern in these plays. "Shakespeare has no heroes," Johnson pronounced, "his scenes are occupied only by men." These two elements--a love plot and a central hero--were the veritable oxygen and gravity in the worlds that most playwrights inhabited. But that was not Shakespeare's world. His world was our world--and this...was why Shakespeare had taken his place among the world's great writers. p.99


My soapbox topic recently has been that Hollywood (i.e., the collective entertainment industry) seeks to relieve us of our money by turning every story into a love story without recognizing that "love is only one of many passions." I'm still not sure I can say that "it has no great influence upon the sum of life," but it's startling to think about Shakespeare as not writing about love...especially with all those love quotes from Shakespeare floating around.

FYI, I blogged about Act I of The Book of William here.


  1. I have been wanting to read this but had, quite honestly, forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder and the good review - I had best put it on my wish list immediately.

  2. Lovely post! I read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The world as stage last summer and immediately went searching for more Shakespeare biographies. I found this one and added it to my wishlist. After reading your review, I'm even more excited about getting around to it one day.

  3. Jon Spence made similar comments in his biography of Jane Austen about how everyone makes such a fuss about the influence her love for Tom LeFroy surely must have had on her novels. He's clear to point out that indicators of the importance of Lefroy surely appear in her fiction, but he was not the sole passion and interest that shaped her fiction. Of course then the film industry went off and made a film based on his book where Jane's love interests were the main focus.