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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: Jonathan Bate's preface to the RSC's second edition of Shakespeare's complete works

RSC Complete Works
RSC Complete Works

RSC Complete Works The Royal Shakespeare Company has newly released a revised second edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

In this excerpt from the preface, Bate traces Shakespeare’s popularity during his lifetime and his posthumous path to global influence, with fascinating insights drawn from Jane Austen and one of the most notable Shakespeare editors, Samuel Johnson.

Bate is Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities at Arizona State University. A leading Shakespeare scholar, he is the author of How the Classics Made Shakespeare and The Genius of Shakespeare, among other books.

⇒ Related Folger podcast: Jonathan Bate on the Classics and Shakespeare


William Shakespeare died in 1616 where he was born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small market town on the edge of the forest of Arden in the English midlands. Soon after his death, a monument to his memory was raised in Holy Trinity, the town church. It consisted of a bust that shows him holding a pen and writing on a tablet laid on a cushion – a standard image used in memorials of writers – together with an inscription that credited him with the wisdom of the pre-eminent ancient philosopher Socrates and the genius of the most admired ancient poet Virgil. He became, in short, an instant classic. Even in his lifetime, when the profession of stage-player was anything but respectable, he was enormously admired. His debut literary work, Venus and Adonis, became the bestselling long poem of the Elizabethan age, while several of his plays – notably Hamlet, Henry IV Part One, Richard II, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet – were among the most in-demand printed theatre scripts in the bookselling hub of St Paul’s churchyard.

Seven years after his death, his fellow-actors oversaw the publication of his Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. The collected works of fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson had been published in the year of Shakespeare’s death, but this included poems and court entertainments as well as plays. The Shakespeare collection of 1623 was the first example of an oeuvre consisting entirely of dramatic works written for the public stage, and classified according to the dignified classical genres of comedy, tragedy and history, enshrined in the lavish, expensive format of a Folio volume. Jonson himself provided the longest and most generous of the dedicatory poems in the preliminary pages, claiming that Shakespeare was a worthy successor to the tragic and comic geniuses of antiquity, such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes, Sophocles and Seneca, Euripides and Plautus. Shakespeare’s plays, wrote Jonson, would travel the world; his genius would be a guiding star, presiding over the future history of the stage.

And yet, as we explain in the General Introduction, that vast global influence was by no means assured. In 1642, the Puritans closed the London theatres, sending the plays underground for nearly two decades. When the monarchy was restored and the theatres reopened, many of Shakespeare’s plays seemed old-fashioned; they were either neglected or rewritten to conform to the norms of the time. The romantic tragi-comedies of the writing team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were staged more often, while new drama, especially comedy, was more influenced by Ben Jonson’s comic types and city plots than Shakespeare’s world of Arden, Illyria and Italy. It was only in the 1730s, around a hundred years after the publication of the First Folio, that Shakespeare began to outstrip all his contemporaries in popularity on both stage and page. There were several reasons for this, notably the talents of actresses and the support of well-to-do women who found in Shakespeare the richest array of female characters, and the rise of a middle-class reading public, for whom his playscripts – especially when read aloud – offered comparable delights to those of the newly emerging form of the novel. In 1741, a monument to Shakespeare was erected in Westminster Abbey. From this time forward, he came to be regarded as the National Poet.

By the time we reach the early nineteenth century, Jane Austen could write dialogue in her novel Mansfield Park in which she distinguishes between a worthy and an unworthy lover by means of Shakespeare. For the lazy and rakish Henry Crawford, the Bard has become part of the national furniture:

‘I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.’

Austen’s brilliant irony allows her to make fun of Henry’s pretentiousness and superficiality, while simultaneously revealing how Shakespeare influences even those who have never seen or read a Shakespeare play. His role in popular culture continues unabated: one only has to think of the almost-daily newspaper headlines which play upon his phrases – much ado about this, to be or not to be that – or the use of a skull in the long-running ‘happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ advertisement or the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s signature song ‘Love Story’ (‘That you were Romeo, you were throwin’ pebbles / And my daddy said, “Stay away from Juliet”’).

In contrast to Henry Crawford, for the sensitive and reliable Edmund Bertram (and thus for Jane Austen herself), the art of reading the plays aloud with skill is a mark of true discernment and culture:

‘No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,’ said Edmund, ‘from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent.’ (Mansfield Park, 1814, vol. 3, chapter III)

To know Shakespeare thoroughly and read him well aloud, it was necessary to have a usable edition of his works, a text that did away with printer’s errors and the vagaries of old spelling and punctuation, that explained the more obscure words and allusions in the plays, and that was furnished with critical guidance as to the nature of Shakespeare’s genius. For Jane Austen, there was no better guide to good writing, good sense and critical acumen than Dr Samuel Johnson, whose complete edition of Shakespeare was published a few years before she was born.

In the preface to that edition, Johnson articulated a series of principles and judgements that have stood the test of time. He began with that very test: endurance. All literary works should be valued according to their truth to observation and experience. A literary work becomes a classic through ‘length of duration and continuance of esteem’. The ‘test of literary merit’ is the capacity of writers to outlive their own century. In order to do so, they must create a world that is not confined to its own time. Shakespeare’s characters ‘are the genuine progeny of common humanity’; they ‘act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion’. It was the multiplicity of passions in his works that so impressed Johnson. Too many other plays (and novels), he believed, were merely love stories. Yes, the experience of love drives the action of the majority of Shakespeare’s plays, but an infinite variety of other feelings and ideas are expressed along the way. Again, in contrast to the ancient division of tragedy and comedy, ‘Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition’. Like every human life, a Shakespeare play is a web of mingled joy and sorrow, ‘an interchange of seriousness and merriment’.

Almost all his plays, Johnson reminds us, are peopled by a diverse crowd of noble and ignoble characters, rich and poor, loyal and deceitful, brave and cowardly, philosophical and playful, old and young. In the trajectory through the two hours’ traffic of the stage, a single character might go through several of these antithetical states – Shakespearean ‘character’ is indeed a process, an evolution, shaped by circumstance and human encounters, not a predetermined set of attributes. In Troilus and Cressida (3.3.97–125), we are reminded that we only achieve our identity through a process of ‘reflection’ whereby other people serve as mirrors to the self. In the few cases where particular ‘others’ are absent – parents in Twelfth Night, women (save for the brief appearance of two prostitutes) in Timon of Athens – the omissions are purposeful.
The endurance of Shakespeare not merely beyond his own centuries, but into ours, is an incontrovertible fact of cultural history. The question for the future – and especially for a theatre company such as the RSC, committed to making Shakespeare our continuing contemporary – is whether the array of selves and the panoply of ideas in his plays are sufficiently capacious to speak to the cultural diversity and the unprecedented challenges of our time. The short answer is yes.

Excerpted from WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE COMPLETE WORKS SECOND EDITION edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen with Ian De Jong and Molly G. Yarn. Copyright © 2007, 2022 by The Royal Shakespeare Company. Published by Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.