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On the history of biographies of Shakespeare

The history of biographical writing will be further explored in the second session. Speaking first, Professor Jack Lynch (Acting Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University) will provide “Some Little Account of the Man Himself: Eighteenth-Century Beginnings.” The quotation is from the first paragraph of Nicholas Rowe’s life of Shakespeare. Notably, Rowe’s essay took the form of a preface to his 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s texts. So the critical reception and the biographical interest went hand-in-hand. For information about the life, Rowe depended on the oral histories as handed down through actors, including Rowe’s contemporary, Thomas Betterton. Through Rowe, some (corrupted) documentary details were added to the biography. Anecdotes also entered the record: that Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, married young, and later retired to Stratford in comparative wealth. Lynch will explore the accretions of detail in the early centuries of Shakespeare’s reception. Lynch has authored both scholarly and popular publications, including Deception and Detection in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Ashgate, 2008) and Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard (Walker, 2007).


Joseph Roach will illuminate episodes in that long history by thinking of them in terms of the development of celebrity culture. In reference to Shakespeare, this culture has frequently been characterized as one of “Bardolotry.” Roach’s latest book, It (University of Michigan Press, 2007), suggests a larger context and a particular, theatrical dynamic for that kind of reception. “It,” is of course recognized at work in phenomena like the “It Factor” or “the It Girl.” “It” is what Roach calls the easily perceived but hard-to-define quality possessed by abnormally interesting people. He will extend his work in that book with a focus on Shakespeare, and with a goal of interpreting how after-images endure in cultural memory through the passage of exceptional personalities through the imaginative life of their “tribes.” Roach is Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale University. His Cities of the Dead:  Circum-Atlantic Performance (Columbia, 1996) won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize. He brings to the conference the crucial perspective of performance history and theory—both on and off the stage.

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