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'Becoming Shakespeare' by Jack Lynch

Times Staff Writer

Jack lynch is one of our most formidable and engaging scholars of Samuel Johnson, so we might locate the inspiration for this new book in a particularly elegant paragraph the great doctor wrote in 1765 for the preface to his own monumental eight-volume "variorum edition" of Shakespeare's collected works:

"But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen."

'Becoming Shakespeare': A review of Jack Lynch's "Becoming Shakespeare" in Wednesday's Calendar section said that Shakespeare's plays met the public demand for dramas "when the restored monarch, Charles I, gave his consent to open a few controlled stages." It should have said the restored monarch was Charles II. —

In "Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard," Lynch takes up that inquiry and pursues it with an unpretentious erudition and impious relish that makes you envy his Rutgers University students. A good literary history is a story about stories, and a good literary historian, which Lynch most surely is, has regard but not reverence for his subject. He's a fine storyteller with a real scholar's facility for the apt rather than the showy quotation.

Lynch begins by describing three alternate versions of Shakespeare's Stratford funeral "on Thursday, 25 April, 1616." In one, the cream of the London theatrical scene gathers to bid farewell to their most valued colleague. In another, only the widow and her two daughters are present at the side of a lonely grave. In the third, a Recusant Catholic is laid to rest in rites necessarily secret because of the politics of his era. The author points out that the alternatives all are plausible — though he takes a nuanced view of the now popular Shakespeare-as-crypto-Catholic theory — because we know so little about the Bard's life. What we do know, Lynch argues concisely and convincingly, is that he wrote the plays attributed to him.

From the graveside, Lynch charts the strange fortunes of Shakespeare's work: how it was collected and, fortuitously, printed in the First Folio, then fell rather decisively out of fashion. The entire English theater and all its genius were silent during the long Puritan tyranny that followed, but when the restored monarch, Charles I, gave his consent to open a few controlled stages, the printed Shakespeare was there to meet the pent-up demand. From that point, his reputation began its ascent to transcendence, though the process was improbably precarious and various. Plays were changed and "improved"; politics and prejudice changed like costumes. There was a great deal of outright fraud and forgery.

Sort of exciting ... like a good play.

Lynch is particularly good on Shakespeare's enduring ability to excite the repressive impulses of would-be cultural commissars down through the centuries. Even in the libertine Restoration era, the Puritan tendency that had forced the closing of the theaters continued to censure and censor. Thus, in 1698, George Ridpath "reminded his readers 'That the wise Roman Senate approv'd the Divorce which Sempronius Sophus gave to his Wife for no other Reason, but that she resorted to the Cirques and Playhouses without his Consent; the very sight of which might make her an Adultress.' " Meanwhile, on the other side of the Protestant-Catholic divide: "An English college in Valladolid, Spain, owned a copy of the Second Folio [of Shakespeare's plays]; in the 1640s an English Jesuit working for the Spanish Inquisition used ink to blot many offensive passages and even razored the whole of 'Measure for Measure' out of the college's copy."

It's good to be reminded that Philistine authoritarianism knows no creed.

When Shakespeare wasn't being sanitized or censored, he frequently was improved to bring his turbulent dramas into accord with the prevailing politics or class sentiments of a particular time. During the failed Jacobite attempt to restore the Catholic monarchy through force of arms by putting Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne, the Protestant dramatist and prolific Shakespeare "improver" Colley Cibber reworked "King John" to make the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Pandulph, the villain of the piece. Cibber even changed the First Folio's title — "The Life and Death of King John" — to something more suited to his own point: "Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John: A Tragedy."

Ours is hardly the first era beset by anxieties over political correctness and hostile to that condition's antagonists — subtlety and ambiguity.

To a certain extent, "Becoming Shakespeare" can be read as a meditation on fame as condition apart from our contemporary notion of celebrity: the difference between a reputation earned by distinctive and distinguished conduct as opposed to one conferred by mere attention. One striking feature of the way the Shakespeare canon was preserved and promoted through the centuries is that those who accomplished those things were overwhelmingly people of the theater and men and women of letters. They were, in other words, people who valued the Bard as a colleague. In some instances, as Lynch points out, it was because of simple, craftsman-like things: As a former actor, Shakespeare wrote lines easy for other actors to recall, lines they enjoyed speaking.

Once his narrative is complete, Lynch turns to his conclusion — and it's a provocative one. He notes that Shakespeare's contemporaries and many shortly afterward deemed the Bard's poems and plays, at best, B-plus work because he was uneducated and failed to conform to the classical unities, was overly fond of puns, "had no sense of poetic justice" and "his notion of decorum was inadequate."

John Dryden had a rejoinder to all that: "Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learn'd; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look'd inwards, and found her there."

Lynch goes further and argues that "by the standards of 1650, Shakespeare really did deserve his B-plus. But as he worked his way into millions of minds around the world in the centuries after his death, he somehow managed to revise standards. He turned 'unschooled' from insult into a compliment and 'rule-bound' from a compliment to an insult. He was there at the beginning of the modern idea of genius."

In that 1765 preface, Dr. Johnson insisted that "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror.... It will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excels in accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare."

The best thing about Jack Lynch's fascinating book is that it helps us to understand that process by which so many of us have come to share Johnson's opinion. That transformation was every bit as contingent and turbulent as one of William Shakespeare's great dramas.

Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard

Jack Lynch

Walker & Company: 308 pp., $24.95

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