And Now, For Something Completely Different



Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Death of Willie Wagstaff

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago on April 23, almost 52 years after he was baptized on April 26 in Stratford-on-Avon, a ritual customarily performed within a few days of birth. Convenience and tradition have established his birthday as April 23, 1564; for the sake of poetry, we might say, he died on the anniversary of his birth, his birthday. Here in Harv’s Hindsight, we commemorate both dates on the 400th anniversary of his death this month. And we seize the opportunity afforded to defend the Bard’s reputation. 

            Years ago, I used to have ferocious arguments about Shakespeare as often as I could with Allan Gross of Insight Studios. Allan contended with some heat the Shakespeare did not write the celebrated plays attributed to him. Scoffing condescendingly, I disparaged his contention with an overpowering contrary argument that convinces sensible people everywhere that I am right and he is wrong. Allan, being only marginally sensible, remained unconvinced. And the recent appearance of yet another tome in the assault on the Bard’s achievement is likely to supply him with even greater reluctance to admit that he’s wrong and I’m right.

            The Truth Will Out: Unmasking The Real Shakespeare by William Rubinstein and Brenda James offers yet another candidate for the dubious distinction of having secretly authored Shakespeare’s plays. I haven’t read it. But I have read a good deal of the literature debunking the so-called Shakespeare’s claimants, and I am almost certain that this theory, like all of the others that have gone before, is balderdash.

            The new candidate for the playwright of Shakesspeare’s plays is Sir Henry Neville, who was discovered by James while she was pawing through the plays on another errand, using a 16th century code-breaking technique. She did not expect to discover the true identity of the person who wrote the plays, but, she believes, she did. Once Neville was revealed, it was discovered that the locales of the plays, arranged in their supposed order of composition, reflect the places Neville was traveling at the times the plays were written. Moreover, Neville’s ancestors, the Plantagenets, are always favorably portrayed in the plays. A conclusive happenstance, obviously. And there’s more of the same. But, as I said, I haven’t actually read the book, so I shouldn’t be dismissive of it. Still, considering the failure of its predecessors in this exercise of debunking Shakespearean authorship, it’s difficult not to be nonchalant.

            During a trip to England in the summer of 2005, I and my wife stayed in Stratford-on-Avon for five days, and I tramped around the Shakespeare sites, looking for more evidence to shore up my side of the argument. Shakespeare being the local industry there, you can find plenty of evidence of the high regard the Bard's contemporaries held him in. Among the evidences, an impressive bust of the man, purporting likeness, over his grave in a local church, the Holy Trinity. And the bust holds a pen and a piece of parchment—symbolizing his profession ass a writer. His fellow citizens would scarcely have erected this monument to a fraud: clearly, they believed he'd written his plays.

            That, of course, proves nothing: if Shakespeare's alleged authorship of some three dozen plays, many masterpieces of English literature, were part of an elaborate conspiracy at the heart of which was the secret of the real author's identity, the monument on the wall of that church proves only that his fellow citizens weren't in on the secret. They, like everyone else, were fooled.

            But we don’t need to visit Stratford for validation of Shakespeare as author of the plays attributed to him.

            Doubts about Shakespeare's authorship have their roots in an ignorance of Elizabethan England that prevailed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Several otherwise respectable personages became convinced that Shakespeare, a poor glover's son in a provincial town, could not have possessed the education or experience to have written the works of genius attributed to him. Shakespeare's plays, these people maintained, were actually written by a contemporary of his, a noted politician, historian and essayist named Francis Bacon, who, as a member of the upper classes, did have the education and experience that the plays attest to.

            None of these “Baconians,” as they became known, was a literary scholar. Nor, as Brian Vickers noted in The Times Literary Supplement (August 17, 2005), did any feel “the need to acquire any knowledge of English literature or of the English language in the sixteenth century, and none bothered to read Bacon. ... All they needed was the preconceived notion that Shakespeare could not have written the plays while Bacon could.”

            Mere probability was not, however, enough for the Baconians. They also claimed to have discovered “messages” hidden in the texts of the plays that disavowed Shakespeare’s authorship and authenticated Bacon’s. The messages could be found by deploying convoluted codes that revealed such statements as: “Shakst spur never writ a word of them”; and “FRA BA WRT EAR AY,” which, the inventor of the code claimed, meant, “Francis Bacon Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays.”

            Unfortunately, the codes were inconsistent: they changed from page to page. One skeptic used one of them to find this message: “Master William Shakespeare writ the plays.”

            Besides, if Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, what was he doing? The answer: he was translating the Bible into the King James Version. And we know this because of his signature that he inserted into the text. If you go to the 46th Psalm and count 46 words from the beginning, you’ll get the word “shake”; and if you count 46 words back from the ending, you’ll get “spear.”

            Obviously, applying Baconian logic, Shakespeare translated the King James Version of the Bible. Why the 46th Psalm? That was how old Shakespeare was when he finished.

            Such scholarly foolishness aside, the Baconian authorship theory gave birth, in due course, to other theories, which offered other people as the probable authors—William Stanley, the Earl of Derby; Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford; even Christopher Marlowe, another of the playwrights in the milieu of London theater at the time; and a half-dozen others. You can find them all described and debunked in The Shakespeare Claimants (1962) by H.N. Gibson. Although the arguments in favor of other authors are unrelentingly ingenious, they are all flummery.



IN THE DECADES SINCE the mid-1800s, we have learned a great deal more than we knew then about Shakespeare's early life, and the more we have learned, the less unlikely it is that a "poor glover's son" could have written the plays.

            Shakespeare's father, John, was a glover, true; but he was also a respected member of the middle class, even the upper middle class. Elected an alderman the year after William was born, he was eventually mayor of Stratford. He had both social position and wealth enough to send his son to the local grammar school, where young Will was inculcated with the usual curriculum, which included Latin and, maybe, Greek as well as a certain amount of history and the like. In short, little Willie Wagstaff was not "poor"; and he was not an uneducated country bumpkin who wandered onto the London stage just in time to be adopted by some unknown genius who wanted him to pose as the author of his plays. So there is no longer any justification, as there was when we knew less about life in Elizabethan England, for disbelieving that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him.

            There is, however, a mystery in Shakespeare’s life. Making someone else the author of his plays does not solve the mystery, but the mystery has provoked other myths about the playwright. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years older than he, in November 1582. Various of Shakespeare’s biographers have assumed that the older woman inaugurated him into the pleasures of the flesh when he was 18. She became pregnant, hence the hastily arranged wedding: the marriage bans were read only once instead of the usual three times. And six months later, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna was born. Twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the Shakespeares in February 1585. And after that, we have no documentation about Shakespeare until his name crops up in the 1592 jottings of a ill-tempered writer in London, whose jape about “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers” who is “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country” recognizes Shakespeare’s emergence as a playwright in the nation’s capital.

            From 1585 until 1592, in other words, we lost track of Shakespeare. During these “lost years,” we know nothing of what Shakespeare might have been doing. We have only our assumption that he somehow made his way from Stratford to London, from glover’s son to playwright. But we have no knowledge of the steps he took.

            An ingenious pair of writers, Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, have undertaken the task of filling in this blank and, at the same time, explaining various inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s life in a book entitled The Shakespeare Conspiracy. This biography claims that the Bard led a double life. Why, for example, is Shakespeare known in his hometown of Stratford only as a grain merchant, not as a famous London playwright? The answer: Shakespeare didn’t want the Stratfordians to know. The reason: when he was not writing plays or hanging out with his fellow actors in some London tavern, he was a spy, working in the Elizabethan Secret Service operated by Francis Walsingham.

            During the “lost years,” Shakespeare was sharpening his espionage skills while traveling the Continent on an assortment of missions (and picking up incidental knowledge that he would later use in writing his plays).

            Phillips and Keatman make a convincing case, but it seems built upon a shaky foundation. The monument to Shakespeare in the Holy Trinity church was erected sometime between his death in 1616 and the publication of 36 of his plays in the First Folio in 1623. And it is a monument to a writer, not a grain merchant. The Stratfordians knew Shakespeare was a writer. Phillips and Keatman’s happy narrative is therefore a pleasant read but a fiction for all that.

            Not quite. The monument with the bust that we see today was made in 1748 when the original required restoration, P&K say. The original memorial, the one put in the church just after Shakespeare’s death by Stratfordians who knew him as the well-to-do owner of the second grandest house in town (New Place), looks quite different. The personage depicted was thinner in the face than the present robust bust. His moustache was longer and drooped. And this original Shakespeare was not holding a pen and a manuscript: his hands rested upon a sack—a sack of grain, no doubt.

            Obviously, to the Stratfordians who knew him, Shakespeare was a grain merchant, not a playwright. And P&K may well be right about the Bard’s double life.

            The evidence of the original appearance of Shakespeare bust can be found, P&K announce, in two drawings made before the 1748 restoration: one can be found in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 biography of Shakespeare; the other (which we reproduce hereabouts), in Sir William Dugdale’s 1656 Antiquities of Warwickshire.

            How come we’ve never seen these drawings before? I’ve seen several paintings that purport to be of Shakespeare—and, of course, the familiar Martin Droeshout engraving that appears on the title page of the First Folio—but in all the ensuing discussions of the accuracy of the likenesses, no one mentions the two drawings that P&K refer to, reproducing one of them in their book.

            And so suspicion and contention and frustration prevail apace. And, no doubt, ever will.

            But these few sentences about Shakespeare’s espionage career provide me with an excuse to post the accompanying two pictures of Shakespeare—on the left, one of the most convivial renderings I’ve ever beheld (an interpretation, however, not purporting at all to be a likeness).

And, on the right, another happy interpretation, this one by the celebrated caricaturist David Levine.



AT THE RISK OF PROLONGING THIS DETOUR, Shakespeare’s appearance has been as hotly debated as the authorship of his plays. For the longest time, only two portraits were accepted as authentic likenesses of the Bard. Both of them appear in the illustration we posted a several paragraphs ago—the bust in the Holy Trinity church in Stratford and the frontispiece of the First Folio, the Droeshout engraving (against an enlargement of which I am leaning in the photograph). Posthumous renditions, both. P&K, as we’ve seen, have successfully destroyed—or, at least, seriously undermined—the authenticity of the Holy Trinity bust: what we see today is a reconstruction so at odds with the appearance of the drawing of the original bust as to qualify as no more than a work of pure imagination.

            The Droeshout engraving, then, is the only picture of Shakespeare that everyone can agree is a fair likeness. Playwright Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare, strenuously implied in his dedicatory poem in the First Folio that the engraving looked like his fellow playwright. And other contemporaries of Jonson and Shakespeare testified variously in agreement.

            This, however, is but the beginning of a contorted tale. Droeshout did not have the living Shakespeare as his model: he was only 15 years old when Shakespeare died. Droeshout was using someone else’s drawing or painting, which he copied, as best he could, in making his engraving. Droeshout was only 21 at the time and therefore not very experienced as an engraver. Most experts who ponder his engraving assume that it is, at best, only a modest approximation of the picture he used as a reference.

            Where, everyone wonders, is that picture? If it exists at all, it may be the only portrait of Shakespeare made of the play     wright when he was living. A search for this mystery portrait has been transpiring for centuries.

            Since the National Portrait Gallery was established in London in 1856, more than 60 portraits of 16th and 17th century gentlemen have been offered to the Gallery purporting to be portraits of Shakespeare. Most have been proven to be less than authentic for one reason or another. The Soest painting, for example—which appears in our early exhibit with the Holy Trinity bust and the Droeshout engraving—was, a dozen years ago when I first assembled the exhibit, seriously considered as a possible likeness of Shakespeare. Since then, it has been established that the painter, Gerard Soest, used as his model a man who was said to look like Shakespeare, not Shakespeare himself. Moreover, the painting was done in the late 1660s, so it is scarcely a portrait of the living Shakespeare.

            The Chandos portrait, the last of the quartet in our exhibit, was painted in about 1610, so it has the best chance of being a portrait from life. It also has the virtue of looking a lot like the Droeshout engraving; it could well be the model from which the young engraver worked. It acquired its present name because it was once in the possession of the Duke of Chandos; but how he came by it, no one knows.

            Then in 2009, another claimant came forward. This is the Cobbe portrait, so-called because it was in the possession of the Cobbe family. This portrait, like the Chandos picture, looks a good deal like the Droeshout engraving—except that the Cobbe Shakespeare’s hairline has not receded as far as the Droeshout’s (perhaps the painter was flattering his subject). And the Cobbe Shakespeare is somewhat thinner in the cheeks—reminding us, maybe, of the Dugdale drawing of the bust in the Holy Trinity church.

            And the provenance of the Cobbe painting is significant: it has been with the Cobbe family since the early 18th century, having descended to the family through a cousin’s marriage to the great granddaughter of Shakespeare’s only literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Here, then, is the connection to the playwright that all the other pictures lack. Wriothesley may have had the portrait done as a gift to the poet he’d taken under his wing.

            Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, believes that the Cobbe Shakespeare is the only portrait painted from life—in about 1610, when the playwright was 46 years old. However, an expert specializing in 17th century art disagrees and says the portrait is of another individual altogether. It is ever thus: every good idea is whittled down in size by some jealous malcontent.

            An interested and dedicated amateur Shakespeare scholar, Tom Christensen, has created another new portrait of Shakespeare by computer morphing together the Chandos and Cobbe portraits (at with fascinating results. It looks like all three—Chandos, Cobbe, and Droeshout.

            And then along came S. Schoenbaum, Distinguished Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Maryland, who wrote William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life and used as the cover illustration for the 1987 paperback edition the portrait posted nearby, “from a recently recovered miniature by George Vertue” (who was born in 1684, too late to know Shakespeare in the flesh; but it’s a nice, friendly picture of a bearded, balding Shakespearean-like man). 

            And so the search goes on. But it will go on without us for now.



FOR NOW, WE RETURN to where we were when I so rudely interrupted us—namely, to the disputed authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. While the excuse for finding someone else to have written them—namely, that Shakespeare was an ignorant country lout without the education or experience to pen masterpieces—has evaporated, the followers of the Baconians continue, as we’ve seen in Rubinstein and James, to put forward other claimants.

            Those who offer some other author for Shakespeare's plays must successfully perform a succession of intellectual gymnastics. First, assuming that the general schooling customs of the time are still viewed as not adequate for producing Shakespeare's evident learning and knowledge, the alternate author must be someone who can write. To prove the claimant can write, evidence of his ability must be produced. And in producing this evidence, these theorists run into the first contradictory predicament, to which I'll return in a trice.

            The second argument the theorists must win is the one that supplies a reason for the alternate author's keeping his identity secret. The usual reason is that "writing"—particularly in association with scruffy and disreputable London actors—was not, then, a respectable profession (anymore than writing comic books was respectable before the advent of graphic novels, which gave the medium literary and therefore social status). If the real author were a nobleman or a respected member of the upper class, he would not want to sully his name and reputation by becoming known as a playwright. But (and here’s where we come to the contradictory predicament) if such a claimant had produced enough writing to prove that he could have written the plays, he would be known as a writer, his reputation would, perforce, be sullied already.

            Well, maybe playwrighting was deemed a less respectable sort of writing than any other; maybe it was just writing plays that was so shameful that the would-be author wanted to keep his participation in London's theatrical life a deep, dark secret. Let's grant that proposition and move to the next hurdle: why did the secret author of the plays pick Shakespeare as his "stand-in"? What was there about this country clodhopper that made him the obvious choice?

            Assuming that the ingenuity of the theorists can contrive an explanation for this, we next need a convincing explanation for how the secret was kept. Clearly, this secret was the most well-kept secret in Western Civilization: no one, apparently, knew that Will Shakespeare, a minor-league actor who wrote plays for his company, wasn't really writing the plays. It defies our experience of human nature to suppose that the secret authorship would be known by several persons, none of whom ever divulged it.

            Obviously, since no one spilled the beans, the secret was known only by Shakespeare and the claimant himself.

            How was the secret maintained? If Shakespeare's colleagues in the acting company didn't know about it, how did Shakespeare explain his seeming inability to make script changes on-the-spot? If the company’s leading actor Richard Burbage demanded an adjustment in his speech, he would, it can be imagined, expect the playwright to make the changes right there, during rehearsal. But if Shakespeare hadn't written the play to begin with, how could he make such changes? Particularly with his fellow actors looking over his shoulder as he wrote. So what would Shakespeare say to avoid the necessity of making the changes immediately? "Okay, okay—you win. I'll make the changes tonight, and you'll have a new speech tomorrow"?

            But maybe his colleagues did know the secret. If they did, however, why would they keep it a secret? What compelling reason would persuade them all, to a man, to keep the secret to the grave?

            But, enough. If the absurdity of the alternate authorship theories isn't apparent in the difficulties surrounding their invention and maintenance, there is yet another reason for denying their efficacy. All of the claimants are put forward in the conviction that Shakespeare could not have written the plays—for one reason or another. Our knowledge of his early life—of the years between his schooling, which ended, probably, when he was about fourteen, and his arrival in London in the early 1590s as a young man well into his twenties—while greater than it was in the mid-1800s, is still pretty skimpy, and the vacuum still fosters doubts about the supposed Bard's training and experience. How could a man whose life is so unknown have the intellectual wherewithal to produce such impressive literature?

            The answer—which, I submit, lays waste to any argument against Shakespeare's authorship—is simplicity itself, an exercise in logic, not scholarship. The plays are universally acknowledged as works of genius. And we cannot explain genius. A genius doesn't need a college education in order to flourish. A genius would find ways to educate himself about whatever he decided he needed to know. The arguments against Shakespeare's authorship crumble away forthwith. If the plays are the works of genius, then Shakespeare was a genius, and we require no further explanation for his ability and achievement.



ONE OF THE REASONS Shakespeare as author of his plays has been vulnerable to attack is that until quite recently, his adherents were as passionate as the attackers: neither side would admit of exceptions to their generalities or evidence that contradicted them. Bardolators were often as misguided and misinformed as Baconians. But that has changed.

            Recent scholarship, for instance, has admitted a couple more plays to the so-called Shakespeare canon—"Edward III" and "Sir Thomas More." Both are collaborations in which Shakespeare had a hand but did not produce, single-handedly, the entire script. Similarly, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen”  are collaborations. The latter is  attributed, when published in quarto in 1634, on its title page to both Shakespeare and John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as house playwright for the King’s Men theater company. None of these four plays, however, appear in the First Folio, which, as we’ll soon see, has, for generations, defined the canonical Shakespeare at 36 plays.

            The First Folio includes “Cymbeline,” “Henry VI, Part 1,” “Titus Andronicus,” "Timon of Athens," "Measure for Measure," "Macbeth," and "Henry VIII"—all of which, saith today’s scholars, involve some collaboration. The extent varies: some scholars say Shakespeare wrote about 20% of “Henry VI, Part 1"; but “Measure for Measure” involves only “light revision” by Thomas Middleton at some point after its original composition. Middleton is also thought to have revised “Macbeth” in 1615 to incorporate musical sequences.

            Shakespeare further complicated the authenticity puzzle by re-writing his own plays, sometimes so extensively that two noticeably different versions of the same play exist. According to St. Wikipedia, “to provide a modern text in such cases, editors must face the choice between the original first version and the later, revised, usually more theatrical version.” Sometimes, they have conflated the texts to produce “a superior Ur-text,” but critics recently have argued that conflated texts run contrary to Shakespeare’s obvious intention—to improve upon his initial composition.

            With “King Lear,” which exists in two independent versions, “each with its own textual integrity” and structure (one in quarto, one in the First Folio), the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare, published in 1986 (and again in 2005), provides both versions of the play. The same problem occurs with at least four other plays—“Henry IV, Part 1,” “Hamlet,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “Othello.”

            Stanley Wells, one of the general editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, said a few years ago: "The world of Shakespeare studies has largely come around to the view that we espoused of Shakespeare as a collaborator ... [accepting] Shakespeare as a writer working among a community of writers, and not, as he has often been perceived in the past, the mysterious, lone-God-figure, passing his works down ... as from an ivory tower."

            The latest play to be added to the canon, "Sir Thomas More," was never printed until recently—and it exists in manuscript. The manuscript itself reveals much about how plays were written: the original hand-written text, attributed to Anthony Munday, shows the hands of at least four others, which scholars have identified as Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Shakespeare.

            I have no quarrel with Shakespeare as a collaborator in a "community of writers" and actors, all engaged in the production of material for staging. But in allowing Shakespeare his collaborators on a few plays, we need not attribute all of his plays to another, or others. His collaborators were not the sole authors of the aforementioned plays any more than Shakespeare was. At the same time, modern scholarship, while admitting collaborators on a few of the usual Shakespearean canon, does not admit them on all of Shakespeare's plays.

            Shakespeare's contribution to "Sir Thomas More," by the way, consists of just two relatively short passages, not whole scenes or subplots. The bulk of the play is still Munday's. Presumably, the same can be said for Shakespeare's authorship of others of his plays traditionally assigned to him but now seen as collaborative efforts—"Measure for Measure," "Macbeth," etc. Shakespeare probably wrote most of these plays while various passages within were contributed by others.

            Even in the "community of writers," Shakespeare is still presumed to have written plays virtually single-handed; or, as in the case of “Measure for Measure” and the other collaborations, he took a commanding lead in devising those his name has historically been associated with. And this takes nothing away from his genius, which is the best explanation for the superiority of these works in the lists of dramas in the English language.

            For our entire experience of Shakespeare’s genius, we are indebted to the publishers of the First Folio, without which, remarkable as it seems, we would probably have never heard of Shakespeare or been able to appreciate his literary achievement.

            None of the manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays have survived (except for the aforementioned “Sir Thomas Moore”) so our knowledge of his work depends entirely on the printed plays. Only 14 of his plays were printed during his lifetime, the quarto editions, all garbled versions of the actual texts—stolen from prompt book versions (that were inherently corrupted for use doing performances) or reconstructed from memory and notes taken by people who attended the plays in performance for the purpose of “transcribing” the proceedings to create published versions of the plays, the quartos. None of these productions, in other words, were supervised by Shakespeare; all are, in today’s terminology, unauthorized.

            The First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, printed 36 of his plays, the entire canon—to which scholars have subsequently added another four that they’ve determined were partially written by Shakespeare. Of the 40 plays now accepted as either wholly or partly written by Shakespeare, we know of 18 only because the First Folio was published.

            And the First Folio is undeniably authoritative: it was assembled by John Heminge and Henry Condell, names that would doubtless have been lost to history without the First Folio. Heminge and Condell had been actors in Shakespeare’s acting company at the Globe Theatre; they had known him personally and his plays intimately. And by 1623, they were the last living members of that company. The contents of the First Folio they assembled from whatever manuscripts remained in the company’s possession plus the 14 quartos—all augmented by their fading memories of lines they’d performed on stage alongside Shakespeare.

            Heminge and Condell said the First Folio replaced earlier published plays, the quartos, which they called “stol’n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious imposters.”

            One of the oft-overlooked sights in London is the so-called “publishers’ monument.” Located in the old city far away from Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the rest of the usual tourist destinations, the 1896 monument sits on the flagstone paving of a tiny park, maybe 20x20-feet, surrounded by shrubs and benches in what was once a corner of the churchyard of St. Mary Aldermanbury (which was all but destroyed during the bombings of London during World War II; the remaining walls were transported in 1966 to Fulton, Missouri, where the church was rebuilt as a memorial to Winston Churchill, who had given there his famous “iron curtain” speech about post World War II Russia). Unless you went looking expressly for it, you would not ever know it was there—a memorial to the men who “created” Shakespeare: without them, the English language’s greatest playwright would scarcely exist.

            Paul Collins, an assistant professor of English at Portland State University and editor of the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney’s Books who appears regularly on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” as the program’s resident literary detective, has written a engaging, readable book about the First Folio, The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World. In the book, he conducts an anecdotal expedition—a record of his personal journey—tracing the convoluted history of the First Folio, through several re-issues and subsequent revisions (the Second Folio, the Third Folio, etc.) until its contents were mangled and corrupted—to be rescued, finally, by Samuel Johnson, who recognized that the best version of Shakespeare’s plays was in the First Folio. By the time he made this determination, seven faux Shakespeare plays had been added to the alleged canon in various re-issues of the First Folio; after Johnson, those fake Shakes were consigned to the limbo they doubtless deserve.

            Only about 500-750 copies of the First Folio were printed, and all but 233 have disappeared (although “lost” copies continue to be found in private libraries and obscure basements). A third of the total—82 copies—are in the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.; but only 13 of the 82 are complete. Over the centuries, many copies have been cannibalized, their pages removed and added to other fragmentary copies to make them complete.

            Collins’ story of the First Folio is fascinating, scholarly without being at all stuffy or intimidating.

            And with that recommendation, we end our testament to the Bard on the 400th anniversary of his death. The vast scholarship about Shakespeare, particularly his life and milieu, is always fascinating to me. Browsing through these tantalizing portions of it is good fun. Too bad we have to wait for another 400 years before getting to do it again.

            Metaphors be with you.


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