Tuesday, April 26, 2016

If Not For Two Men...

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

Today April 26, 2016 marks the 452nd anniversary of day of William Shakespeare's baptism. Since there is no actual record of his birth and it was common in the 16th Century to baptize babies three days after their birth, it is commonly accepted that the actual date of Shakespeare's birth is April 23, 1564.

But April 23, 1616, the day that William Shakespeare shuffled off his mortal coil, was the day the best of all western literature almost died. To think that his plays and poetry could have been lost to history if not for two men who saw the value of his writing and saved them from oblivion. These two men were John Heminges and Henry Condell, "two of [his] friends, fellow actors and shareholders in the King’s Men theatrical company." We should all have such friends. What a loss to all of humanity, if not for these two men. To think how close the world came to never knowing the works of William Shakespeare, a playwright and poet of such profound insight to human nature who continues to prove that we humans have not changed, only the technology we use.

The following was published in the New York Post on April 20, 2016 in the run-up to the huge global commemoration of Shakespeare's death. It was written by Andrea Mays, the author of “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio” and James L. Swanson, author of “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.” It is worth sharing. To think how close the world came to never knowing the works of William Shakespeare, a playwright of such profound insight to human nature who continues with each reading to prove that human nature has not changed.

Shakespeare Died A Nobody Then Got Famous By Accident

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The world will celebrate him as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. But his lasting fame wasn’t inevitable. It almost did not happen.

He was born in 1564 and died in 1616 on his 52nd birthday. A celebrated writer and actor who had performed for Queen Elizabeth and King James, he wrote approximately 39 plays and composed five long poems and 154 sonnets. By the time of his death, he had retired and was considered past his prime.

By the 1620s, his plays were no longer being performed in theaters. On the day he died, no one — not even Shakespeare himself — believed that his works would last, that he was a genius or that future generations would hail his writings.

He hadn’t even published his plays — during his lifetime they were considered ephemeral amusements, not serious literature. Half of them had never been published in any form and the rest had appeared only in unauthorized, pirated versions that corrupted his original language.

Enter John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends, fellow actors and shareholders in the King’s Men theatrical company. In his will he left them money to buy gold memorial rings to remember him. By about 1620, they conceived a better way to honor him — one that would make them the two most unsung heroes in the history of English literature. They would do what Shakespeare had never done for himself — publish a complete, definitive collection of his plays.

Heminges and Condell had up to six types of sources available to them: Shakespeare’s original, handwritten drafts; manuscript “prompt books” copied from the drafts; fragment “sides” used by the actors and containing only the lines for their individual parts; printed quartos — cheap paperbound booklets — that published unauthorized and often wildly inaccurate versions of half the plays; after-the-fact memorial reconstructions by actors who had performed in the plays and later repeated their lines to a scribe hired by Heminges and Condell; and the editors’ own personal memories.

Today, no first-generation sources for the plays exist. None of Shakespeare’s original, handwritten manuscripts survive — not a play, act, scene, page of dialogue or even a sentence. Without Heminges and Condell, half of the plays would have been lost forever.

They got to work after the bard’s death. At the London print shop Jaggard & Son, workers set the type by hand, printed the sheets one by one and hung them on clotheslines for the ink to dry. The process was methodical and slow, done by hand. It took two years.

When at last the First Folio was finished, it was a physically impressive object. At more than 900 pages, it had size and heft. The tallest copies, right off the press, untrimmed by the printer’s plow, measured 13½ by 8¾ inches.

Published in London in 1623, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies” revolutionized the language, psychology and culture of Western civilization. Without the First Folio, published seven years after the bard’s death, 18 iconic works — including “Macbeth,” “Measure for Measure,” “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” — would have been lost.

If the Bible is the book of God, then Shakespeare is the book of man on Earth. We use the words he invented, speak in his cadences, and think in his imagery. Whether writing about gravediggers or kings, he divined the profound commonality of man mourning life’s frailty and brevity. Not an intellectual or cloistered scholar, Shakespeare wrote to entertain the common people but spoke universal truths. We can see ourselves in his characters.

Without the First Folio, his evolution from poet to secular saint would never have happened. The story of that book is an incredible tale of faith, friendship, loyalty and chance. Few people realize how close the world came, in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, to losing him.

Today, it is one of the most valuable books in the world. In October 2001, one of them sold for more than $6 million. Of the 750 copies printed, two-thirds of them have perished over the last 393 years. Two hundred thirty-five survive.

The unpredictability of the future is one of Shakespeare’s great, recurring themes. He would relish the drama of his own improbable tale. Time has performed many conjuring tricks, but few so fantastic as the making of the First Folio.

Shakespeare went to his grave a mortal man destined to fade from memory. Today he is eternal.

In their introduction to the First Folio, Heminges and Condell implored us to “Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe.” As we commemorate the 400th, let us celebrate the forgotten men and the luminous book that saved the name of William Shakespeare, in the words of Macbeth, “to the last syllable of recorded time.”

In Kit's post on Friday, he added this quote from Daniel Hannan on CapX.com: "If you try to claim him for any contemporary cause, you diminish rather than elevating that cause. Shakespeare will always argue both sides of a case better than you can.".

My response: I can argue that we CAN claim Shakespeare's writing/plays for contemporary causes, because he wrote about universal truths. Even his histories have relevence and can be "conceptualized" to fit any time... I have works on productions of MacBeth in feudal Japan, on Taming Of The Shrew in the Old West, and even a productions of Julius Caesar in revolutionary Cuba. The key is actually understanding these universal truths in the text.

And so you do not think that I am some snob, I think if Shakespeare were writing today, he would be writing for television...


AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Several of Kurosawa's samurai films are Shakespearean plays.

Kit said...

I'll be posting more on Shakespeare this weekend. And, no, two posts on Shakespeare in one week is not too many, if anything, it is too little considering this is the Bard we are talking about. As Ben Johnson said, "He was not of an age but for all time!"

Kit said...


Daniel Hannan was referring to a writer who said that Shakespeare would've voted for staying in the EU.

Kit said...

Here was the next paragraph:

"The truly magical quality of Shakespeare’s plays is that, as Harold Bloom once put it, whatever experiences we bring to them, they illuminate our experiences more than our experiences illuminate the plays. Whenever we read his words, they seem narrowly aimed at our circumstances. The same passage can speak to us in opposite ways at different moments in our lives. How this sorcery works I shall probably never understand; but, if you’re familiar with the canon, you’ll know what I mean."

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew -There have been many movies, plays, musicals based on Shakespeare's plays because his themes of misguided revenge, jealousy, forbidden love, misguided love, mistaken identity and so on are easy to copy. Btw, Shakespeare did the same thing...he stole from the classics.

BevfromNYC said...

Sorry Kit, I have a knee-jerk reaction to any combination of words that might mean that Shakespeare is sacred text. In fact the second half of your first quote says exactly the opposite of what I intrepeted it to mean.

I have spent an entire career arguing with hard-core traditionists who believe that it is sacrilege to stray from traditional Elizabethan garb and who deem every word sacred. And who damn those to a firey pit of Hell for daring to "conceptualize"! The Horror!!!!

Btw, if you've never watch the Canadian TV series "Slings and Arrows", it's really great. I highly recommend it when you have time.

Critch said...

"Forbidden Planet", The Tempest in space....

Kit said...


Forbidden Planet is an amazing movie.

Kit said...


I have seen the first season of Slings and Arrows and about half of the second season. This is probably my favorite scene: LINK

Kit said...

My two favorite lines:

"He set The Tempest in Nazi Germany. There were swastikas everywhere!"
"Everyone cries when they're stabbed."

BevfromNYC said...

That's a great scene! Dealing with actors who have no clue about what they are saying or doing so rampant in Shakespeare Festival work. I hope you have time to finish the series. Just a hint...each season represents a different stage of life - Hamlet, the young man; MacBeth, the middle aged man; and King Lear the old man. It's so great!

BevfromNYC said...

Critch - "Where have you been? I've beamed and beamed!" Classic Shakespeare! ;-)

Critch said...

Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd did an episode of "Moonlighting" ala "The taming of the Shrew"..it was hilarious and inventive.....it ended with them singing..."We hate Iambic pentameter!"

Kit said...

Special Notice: This thread is an election-free zone. No discussions on the election, please!

Critch said...

So which of the Bard's plays would be easiest to adapt to a Bond film? I like Macbeth or Hamlet....

Kit said...


Probably Hamlet.

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