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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: "Shakespeare without a Life" by Margreta de Grazia

Shakespeare without a Life
Shakespeare without a Life

Did Shakespeare give much thought to how his works would survive after his death? Margreta de Grazia argues that, judging from his poetry, he did. “Posterity looms large in the Sonnets from their onset,” she writes in Shakespeare without a Life, a new book published in April by Oxford University Press. De Grazia’s account of the development of the “idea” of Shakespeare is based on the 2018 Oxford Wells Shakespeare Lectures. Read the full excerpt below.


Tradition once held that Shakespeare gave no thought to posterity. According to Pope, he wrote plays “[f ]or gain, not glory … / And grew Immortal in his own despight.” Had he been concerned for the future, it was assumed, he would have overseen the collecting, preparing, and publishing of his plays. In the preface to his 1765 edition of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson rejects outright the implication of the Folio compilers that, had Shakespeare lived longer, he would have made provision for his plays. On the contrary, Johnson demurs, Shakespeare had ample time in retirement to prepare his works for posterity, “while he was yet little declined into the vale of years.” Rather, he set his sights on the immediate present: “It does not appear that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit.” Johnson, it seems, had not read the 1609 Sonnets, at least not at the time he wrote this preface.

Posterity looms large in the Sonnets from their onset. The first two lines of the first sonnet make concern for future generations axiomatic: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.” This injunction, unlike the biblical one to “be fruitful and multiply,” is strictly exclusive. It calls for the increase only of “fairest creatures.” There appears to be only one such creature per generation, as there is only one firstborn to inherit an estate. Yet more than dynasty is at stake in these poems: at risk is the twofold ideal of beauty and truth, symbolized by the show and fragrance of the rose. The rather quaint term the first seventeen sonnets have acquired, “the procreation sonnets,” is misleading. For these poems are concerned more with preservation than creation, with sustaining life rather than bringing it into being. The twofold ideal is to be transmitted to posterity like a legacy, through either biological reproduction or poetic imitation. If the present “fairest creature” does not provide for the future by begetting a likeness of himself (“Make thee another self ” [sonnet 10]), the world will suffer fatally, as is prognosticated by the couplet of sonnet 14: “Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.” It falls on the poet to prevent that fatality, to assure the fairest creature’s survival, if not in flesh and blood then through poetry.

Yet beauty’s paragon may have been flawed from the start. The youth’s “unprovident” (sonnet 10) refusal to make provision for the future signals a deep imperfection and the first group of sonnets finds more to blame than to praise in the idealized creature, charging him with all manner of sin and crime: self-love, gluttony, avarice, onanism, profligacy, parsimony, cruelty, even murder—not only of himself, by suicidally cutting off his lineage, but also of humankind, by the genocidal desire “to stop posterity.”(sonnet 3). His self-loving abstinence makes for a ruinous, even holocaustal, precedent: “If all were minded so the times should cease, / And threescore year would make the world away” (sonnet 11).

As if to counter the fairest creature’s reckless indifference, the poet takes on the responsibility of providently looking ahead, envisioning the “age to come” (sonnet 17), “times in hope” (sonnet 60), “ages yet to be” (sonnet 101). To ‘the “age unbred,” (sonnet 104), he attributes embryonic human features and faculties: “eyes not yet created” will read his lines and “tongues-to-be” will give voice to them (sonnet 81) and to their appraisal of their hyperbole, “This poet lies” (sonnet 17). Most alarmingly, in an apostrophe, posterity possesses ears with which to receive the awful news, shouted loud and clear as if across the ages: “[H]ear this thou age unbred: / Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead” (sonnet 104). At some indeterminate future point, perhaps at whatever time the sonnet is being read, the dread outcome of the youth’s self-absorption will have already come to pass: a future devoid of “fairest creatures.” The proleptic “age unbred” will have arrived: a brood that will be ill-bred, like the creatures sonnet 11 would have had “barrenly perish”—“harsh, featureless, and rude.”

In the future he foresees, the poet is himself conspicuously absent, or if present, only in the impossibly posthumous state of his strange self-referencing epithet, “thy deceasèd lover” (32) and “deceasèd I” (72). Already on his “death-bed” (73), he envisions a time when he is dead (“when I am dead” [71]), interred (“When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover” [32]), and decomposed (“when I in earth am rotten” [81]). At his own insistence, nothing will remain of him, not even a grave marker—“My name be buried where my body is” (72)—his identity lost among charnel house remains: “The earth can yield me but a common grave” (81). He watches his paragon pace forth through an apocalyptic landscape, before the “eyes of all posterity” (55), though not his own, unless peering from the grave.

In the Sonnets, the promised eternity that caught Thorpe’s attention is never extended to the poet. Always it is the verse (or its subject) that is to be kept alive:

My love shall in my verse ever live young (19)

Your praise shall still find room, / Even in the eyes of all posterity (55)

His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, / And they shall live (63)

You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen) (81)

Your name from hence immortal life shall have (81)

Your monument shall be my gentle verse (81)

And thou in this shalt find thy monument (107)

In the only sonnet in which the poet confers perpetual life on himself, it is not in a durable verse monument but in poetry’s smallest and least esteemed particle, an ephemeral coincidence of sound: “I’ll live in this poor rhyme” (sonnet 107).

The poet’s absence from the future for which he writes does not derive from the immortalizing topos of Shakespeare’s ancient models. It is not to be found in Horace, who imagines himself eternalized by his verse: “I shall continually be renewed in the praises of posterity.” Nor is it in Ovid, who presumes that his art will prolong his life indefinitely: “My lyfe shall euerlastingly be lengthened still by fame.” But it does correspond with the preliminaries to the first comprehensive collection of Shakespeare’s plays, the 1623 Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies and its three seventeenth-century reprints, as well as with its poetic counterpart, the 1640 Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent. in its many editions. At the entrance to both collections, Shakespeare’s death is lamented, while his works are poised for survival. Thorpe, at the threshold of the 1609 Sonnets, performs a similar parting of ways, even in Shakespeare’s lifetime, perhaps taking his cue from the Sonnets themselves, where the poet absents himself from the future he imagines for his poems. In all three publications, the works are imagined surviving without the individuating particulars of their author’s life. And so indeed they did survive for almost two centuries after Shakespeare’s death.

© Margreta de Grazia
Extract from Shakespeare without a Life by Oxford University Press in April 2023, available in hardback and eBook formats, £25.00
Shakespeare without a Life – Margreta de Grazia – Oxford University Press (