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The Mirror of Life- Or How Shakespeare Conquered the World-Harpers

The Mirror of Life- Or How Shakespeare Conquered the World-Harpers

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ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: A COLLISION COURSE WITH IRAN
HARPER'S MAGAZINE/ APRIL 2007
------------. ------------
THE MIRROR OF LIFE
How Shakespeare Conquered the World
 By Jonathan Bate
DOWN! UP!
You're in the Iraqi Army Now
 By Joe Sacco
THE WIZARD OF WEST ORANGE
A
story by Steven Millhauser  Also: Cynthia Ozick and Francine Prose
------------. -------
$6.95US $7.95CAN
 
E S SAY
THENIIRROR
OF LIFE
How Shakespeare conquered the world
 By Jonathan Bate
I n
1612, around the time that Shakespearewas beginning to work in collaboration with JohnFletcher, perhaps as prelude to his retirement,the young dramatist John Webster wrote apreface to his tragedy
The White Devil
inwhich he expressed his "good opin-ion" of the "worthy labours" of hispeers in the art of playmaking:the grandiose style of GeorgeChapman, the learning of BenJonson, the collaborative en-terprise of Francis Beaumontand John Fletcher, and "theright happy and copious in-dustry of Mr Shakespeare, MrDecker, and Mr Heywood."Shakespeare's plays are thuspraised for being plentiful innumber and skillfully executed.He is placed in the company of Thomas Dekker and Thomas Hey-wood, two other prolific and highly pro-fessional writers who made their living from thestage. But he ismentioned after four writers who,while equally professional and industrious, werebetter connected to the court and the gentry-Chapman, Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher. Fouryears later, in the spring of 1616, Beaumont andShakespeare died within a few weeks of each oth-er. Beaumont became the first dramatist to behonored with burial in the national shrine of Westminster Abbey, beside the tombs of GeoffreyChaucer (the father of English verse) and Ed-mund Spenser (the greatest poet of the Eliza-bethan era). Shakespeare was laid to rest in theprovincial obscurity of his native Stratford-upon-Avon. That same year, Ben Jonson became thefirst English dramatist to publish a collect-ed edition of his own plays written forthe public stage. He was muchmocked for his presumption in do-ing so, especially under the titleof 
Works,
suggestive of an edi-tion of a classical author suchas Vergil or Horace. Websterlearned many of the tricks of his trade from Shakespeare,but if he had been askedwhich of his contemporarieswould achieve immortalityand come to be regarded as thegreatest playmaker since the an-cient Greek tragedians, he couldas well have plumped for eitherJonson or the team of Beaumont andFletcher. Or possibly even Chapman.We now think of Shakespeare as a uniquegenius, the embodiment of the very idea of artis-tic genius, but in his own time, though widely ad-mired, he was but one of a constellation of the-atrical stars. How is it, then, that when we reachthe eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shake-speare's fame has outstripped that of all his peers?Why was he the sole dramatist of the age whowould eventually have a genuinely internation-al, ultimately a worldwide, impact?One of the ways in which writers endure isthrough their influence on later writers. Jonson
 Jonathan Bate is Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at Warwick University.
He
is the general editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of Shakespeare's
Complete Works,
published this month by Random House.
Detail of a colored engraving of William Shakespeare, late 19th century
©
The Granger Collection, New York City
ESSAY 37
 
intuited this in his dedicatory poem to the
1623
First Folio of Shakespeare's collected plays, inwhich he described Shakespeare as a "star" whose"influence" would "chide or cheer" the futurecourse of British drama. Once the Folio was avail-able to, in the words of its editors, "the great Va-riety of Readers," the plays began to influencenot just the theater but poetry more generally.The works of Milton, notably his masque Co-
mus,
were steeped in Shakespearean language.Indeed, the young Milton's first published poemnative genius, used to support claims for Englishnaturalness as opposed to French artifice and forthe modems against the ancients. In a sweeping
Essay of Dramatic Poesy
(1668),
Dryden describedShakespeare as "the man who of all Modem, andperhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and mostcomprehensive soul." He brushed off charges of Shakespeare's lack oflearning with the memorable judgment that "he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature."Contemporaneously with Dryden, the learnedMargaret Cavendish, Duch-ess of Newcastle, praisedShakespeare for his abilityto enter into his vast arrayof characters, to "expressthe divers and different hu-mours, or natures, or sev-eral passions in mankind."Yet at the same time, thecourtly elite had spent theiryears of exile in France andhad come under the influ-ence of a highly refinedneoclassical theory of artis-tic decorum, according towhich tragedy should bekept apart from comedyand high style from low,with dramatic "unity" de-manding obedience tostrict laws. For this reason,Dryden and his contempo-raries took considerable lib-erties in polishing and "im-proving" Shakespeare'splays for performance. Ac-cording to the law of po-etic justice, wholly inno-cent characters should notbe allowed to die: Nahum Tate therefore rewrote
King Lear 
with a happy ending in which Cordeliamarries Edgar. Tate also omitted the character of the Fool, on the grounds that such a figure was be-neath the dignity of high tragedy.The more formal classicism of Jonson and thecourtly romances of Beaumont and Fletcher an-swered more readily to the Frenchified standardsof the Restoration theater. Actors, though, weredemonstrating that the most rewarding roles in therepertoire were the Shakespearean ones. ThomasBetterton
(1635-1710),
the greatest player of theage, had enormous success as Hamlet, Sir TobyBelch, Henry VIII, Macbeth, Timon of Athens,Lear, Falstaff, Angelo in
Measure for Measure,
and Othello (some of these in versions close to theoriginal texts, others in heavily adapted rework-ings). Playhouse scripts of individual plays foundtheir way into print, while the Folio went throughits third and fourth printings. By the end of thewas a sonnet prefixed to the second edition of theFolio, in which Shakespeare was said to havebuilt himself "a live-long Monument" in the formof his plays. Shakespeare was Milton's key prece-dent for the writing of his epic
Paradise Lost 
(1667)
in blank verse rather than rhyme. Even lat-er seventeenth-century poets who were commit-ted to rhyme, such as King Charles II's poet lau-reate, John Dryden, acknowledged the power of Shakespeare's dramatic blank verse. As an act of homage to "the Divine Shakespeare," Drydenabandoned rhyme in
All for Love
(1678),
his re-working of the Cleopatra story.The London theaters were closed during theyears of civil war and republican government inthe middle of the seventeenth century, and theyears after the Restoration of the monarchy in
1660
were characterized by a somewhat schizo-phrenic attitude toward Shakespeare. On the pos-itive side, he was invoked for his inspirational
38 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2007
 David Garrick as Richar
Ill, by William Hogarth
©
Walker ArtGallery, National Museums Liverpool/Bridgeman Art Library

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