Get into his Bard books

Myths on Shake­speare’s sources are skew­ered with schol­ar­ship and wit.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By ANNA ROGERS

When Polo­nius asks Ham­let what he’s read­ing, the re­ply is, “Words, words, words.” How many mil­lions have been writ­ten about Wil­liam Shake­speare? What is known about his life would fill an ex­tremely mod­est num­ber of pages, but this has not pre­vented the pro­lif­er­a­tion

of myths, ideas and philoso­phies about the Bard’s birth, up­bring­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and works. Can there pos­si­bly be any­thing else to say?

Aus­tralian book­trade his­to­rian Stuart Kells thinks so, and his cho­sen topic is the great man’s li­brary. Shake­speare was fa­mously mag­pie-like, of­ten bor­row­ing themes and plots – as Kells re­minds us, pla­gia­rism was not an El­iz­a­bethan con­cept – but he also re­ferred to a rich and wide range of sub­jects and sources, for which he would have needed books. Over four cen­turies, a com­pelling cast of char­ac­ters has hunted for this lost Tu­dor trea­sure. Some­times, when they couldn’t find it, they sim­ply made it up. Kells re­veals breath­tak­ingly brazen frauds,

forg­eries and filch­ing, care­ful and ad­mirable schol­ar­ship – and some won­der­ful mad­ness. There was, for in­stance, the earl who of­ten had his books washed “to re­move antique soil­ing and in­scrip­tions”, or Dr Orville Ward Owen, of Detroit, who de­signed a ma­chine to read the mes­sages hid­den in Shake­speare’s plays. Kells’ style is easy yet eru­dite, and of­ten very funny: he de­scribes one bib­lio­ma­niac as “gripped by the kind of com­pet­i­tive jeal­ousy nor­mally seen only in ice-skat­ing”. He ad­mits cheer­fully to his own ob­ses­sions, but re­mains bless­edly sen­si­ble, ar­tic­u­late and un­afraid of a spot of icon­o­clasm.

He calls time on some well-es­tab­lished

no­tions, and takes an in­tel­li­gently ap­plied hatchet to some of the ha­giog­ra­phy. Was Wil­liam Shake­speare re­ally Henry Neville? Kells has great fun de­bunk­ing this “heresy”.

In his view, Shake­speare’s probable work­ing method was one of “grad­u­al­ism and col­lec­tivism”. He used what­ever ma­te­rial was avail­able to pen top­i­cal, pop­u­lar plays that were ideal for per­for­mance. But, be­fore they were printed, they needed re­fin­ing – edit­ing – by oth­ers, both in his life­time and af­ter his death.

Such a view may rat­tle the rev­er­ent, but there is thought and con­vic­tion be­hind Kells’ sug­ges­tions. The lack of manuscripts or books with au­then­tic sig­na­tures or in­scrip­tions may, he thinks, be per­fectly ex­pli­ca­ble, es­pe­cially now that Shake­speare is re­garded as “worldly, work­man­like, un­sen­ti­men­tal”.

In the end, per­haps, it mat­ters not a fig whether Shake­speare had a li­brary, or, if he did, where it is. As this fresh and en­ter­tain­ing book re­minds us, un­touched by all the chi­canery, the be­lief-stretch­ing the­o­ries, the crazy cryp­tog­ra­phers and the sin­gle-minded col­lec­tors, are the words, words, words that make up those in­com­pa­ra­ble plays and son­nets.

Stuart Kells

SHAKE­SPEARE’S LI­BRARY: Un­lock­ing the Great­est Mys­tery in Lit­er­a­ture, by Stuart Kells (Text Pub­lish­ing, $40)

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