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Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture

Brian Cummings will launch the conference with the Folger Institute’s “Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture.”


“It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking, that so little is known about the poet. It is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should come out,” Charles Dickens wrote of Shakespeare. The biography of Shakespeare is a paradox. Do we feel our lack of knowledge so painfully because it relates to a figure we care so much about? Or alternatively, is Shakespeare our greatest author precisely because we know so little about him, so that his authorship remains a mystery? Shakespeare is at once a figure of cultural saturation and an indefinable enigma. We see him everywhere, yet we keep on looking for more.


The Birthday Lecture will be partly an essay in the problem of writing the life of Shakespeare. Professor Cummings will discuss this in terms of the documentary history and its haunting sense of missing links. He will describe the equally strange history of how the Shakespearean archive has come into being: a tale of human love and scholarship and fantasy and projection that has gone into furnishing Shakespeare with an appropriate life history (and even of depriving him of one, and giving the plays to someone else). But the lecture will also reach beyond the peculiarities of the Shakespearean case to ask questions about literary biography as an art form. Most great writers of the twentieth century wished that people would read their writings without reference to their lives. It is not clear, either to authors or to their biographers, that the works are better understood for the existence of biographies. Professor Cummings will therefore make a case for “anti” biography. But he will also ask whether such revisionism is sufficient. What is the life of writing, as opposed to the life of the writer? After all the searching, he will suggest that the reading of a writer creates a life of its own, somewhere between writer and reader, in the mystery that constitutes the act of literature.

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