It is often forgotten that William Shakespeare, "the inventor of the English language" (according to Samuel Johnson), "the German language" (Goethe), and even "of consciousness itself" (Jorge Luis Borges), was once upon a time actually alive, and--with all respect to Harold Bloom and his belief in Shakespeare's "invention"--human. Building on this now-controversial idea that William Shakespeare was not only 1) human but 2) wrote plays and poems, the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library is presenting a show entitled "Shakespeare and the Book," an exhibition inspired by Columbia Professor David Scott Kastan's book of the same name.
Displayed in the rare book gallery on the 6th floor of Butler, the collection begins with a section entitled "Shakespeare's Books," displaying the literature Shakespeare turned to when he needed inspiration for a new Globe production. While Shakespeare may have invented consciousness, he invented virtually none of his plots, stealing them from sources as diverse as Ovid's Metamorphosis (his favorite book) and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande, Shakespeare's historical source for plays as diverse as Macbeth, Lear, Cymbeline and all the Henry plays. Here we also find a 1612 version of The History of Don Quixote of Mancha by "Michael" Cervantes, two separate volumes graced with a lovely engraving of the knight errant himself, a windmill lurking ominously in the background.
The presence of Quixote in the exhibit however, is not quixotic; Cervantes and the errant knight are in fact directly connected to Shakespeare by a shared English publisher (who also happened to introduce England to Marlowe and translations of Montaigne, another Shakespearean influence). The publisher was Edward Blount and he shared the not insignificant expense of printing a massive tome like the folio with Isaac Jaggard.
In 1623, they introduced Shakespeare into the universe of the text. During his lifetime Shakespeare demonstrated no interest in this universe, conceiving of himself as a theater professional--a stage man and not a literary man. Unlike his contemporary and mass culture competitor Ben Jonson, Shakespeare never constituted his plays as a cohesive canon and, when he died in 1616, half of his plays existed only in the ephemeral space of the theater. It was not until the First Folio of 1623 that the written world received 18 of Shakespeare's plays, including The Tempest, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. In other words, without the first folio, Western culture is a lot less interesting.
In the first folio we also find Jonson's famous tribute to Shakespeare: "He was not of an age, but for all time!" It is fitting that the first reference to Shakespeare's immortality arrives only with Shakespeare's transformation into an author. And even if Shakespeare was never too concerned with revisions and literary details--although Hamlet does tell his actors to "speak no more than is set down for them"--it is only with the arrival of the massive first folio that Shakespeare begins to achieve separation from his contemporary culture and from peers like Jonson, Marlowe, and Chapman. It is hard to imagine, but Shakespeare was not always immortal. In fact, during his lifetime he was very mortal.
Seeing the fragile folio protected only by a thin pane of glass is a stark reminder of just how capricious the idea of "literature" is. As Professor Kastan remarks, "literature exists, in a useful sense, only and always in its materializations, and these are the conditions of its meaning rather than merely the containers of it ... We can read only what is physically before our eyes to be read."
After all, there are quarto editions of Hamlet where the famous soliloquy begins: "to be or not to be, ay, there's the point." Without the first folio (containing the "proper" line, the one embedded in allusive lexicon), Hamlet is a little less memorable, a little less immortal. Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare was not handed the ten commandments of soliloquies on Mt. Sinai; he was instead preserved by two little-known stage actors who happened to like his plays, John Heminge and Henry Condell. It is because of them and the first folio that Hamlet asks the right question.
But if existing in the museum of the text is the precursor to canonization, it is no guarantee. Even today, Shakespeare suffers the slings and arrows of reinterpretation, a victim of his own genius in creating characters so alive they continue to haunt us. But once upon time, back in the late 17th century, Shakespeare wasn't so lucky. Playwright and translator John Dryden believed that Shakespeare's "whole style" had become "pestered with Figurative expressions" and that by 1660, Shakespeare was "as affected as it is obscure." To fix Shakespeare's failings, Dryden helped William D'Avenant revise The Tempest, adding new characters and bawdy dialogue. Needless to say, Dryden's Tempest (a 1670 version of the play is included in the collection) was a smashing success and Dryden eventually became poet laureate.
And Dryden was not alone in reimagining Shakespeare. In 1681 playwright Nathum Tate presented a "newmodelling" of King Lear, complete with a happy ending. Turns out, Lear was not really crazy (it was just the storm) and Cordelia could marry Edgar after all.
All this revision of Shakespeare's texts eventually resulted in Shakespeare becoming, in 1663, 47 years after his death, the author of 7 new plays (they have since been expelled from the Shakespeare canon). This even thicker folio is also included in the exhibit, serving as an imposing reminder that existence as an expensive text is no guarantee of authenticity. Even when the folios proclaimed as their mission the "redemption of Shakespeare from the injuries of former impressions," as Nicolas Rowe does in the 1709 octavo edition, they merely compounded the textual errors accumulated since 1623, adding their own "modernizing language" in turn.
So then if the physical, visual text does not directly represent the author, what does it represent? As the exhibit demonstrates, the material text provides a window into the culture of the time. A play, as Shakespeare said, "is a mirror held up to nature," a window into a specific historical moment. Of course post-Restoration England has a happy King Lear. And of course we now stage Macbeth in a fast food outlet.
Maybe the genius of Shakespeare is that somehow in every age he magically reinvents the human. His language and his characters provides the vague light with which we illuminate our own reflection. As W.H. Auden wrote, what makes Shakespeare unique is that "regardless of whatever the audience may see taking place on stage, the final effect upon each spectator at a Shakespeare play is an act of self-revelation."
This Shakespearean cultural plasticity, the source of his immortality, is exactly what makes his texts so equally vulnerable to reinvention. Every age attempts to secure Shakespeare for themselves, defining their specific version as complete, true, and perfect. Instead, as this exhibit demonstrates, those who search for the "real" Shakespeare are like Hamlet searching for the ghost of his father. Like the kingly ghost, Shakespeare stands before us, all of us, in "a questionable shape," leaving us with nothing but, to again quote Hamlet, "words, words, words."
Shakespeare and the Book runs through March 1 in Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, located on the 6th floor of Butler Library.