“On Thursday 25th April 1616, William Shakespeare’s mortal remains were laid to rest. It was a bright, warm spring afternoon in Stratford-upon-Avon; a few high clouds provided an ironically cheerful counterpoint to the melancholy mood below. Inside the church of the Holy Trinity, crowded around a fresh grave, stood the playwright’s many admirers, who had been following his career in London since he first arrived on the theatrical scene a quarter century earlier”.
Lynch then goes on to describe the guest list, the order of service and who read bible passages and so on. He then finishes with “or maybe not” and then posits three other equally convincing accounts of Shakespeare’s funeral; all of which could be equally true but we will never know because no one thought it important enough to write about, no newspaper coverage or letters between friends and colleagues.
Jack Lynch, in his book Becoming Shakespeare shows that how much we know about, or think we know about the greatest writer (supposedly) that ever lived comes very little from the lifetime of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, and comes very much from circumstances, coincidences and personalities that followed him in the almost 396 years since Shakespeare’s death.
Lynch’s book goes through the good fortune that Shakespeare’s works were rediscovered some decades after his death by actors in one of the two permissible theatres allowed to start up again in Restoration London, after all theatres were closed during the puritan parliamentary period. Then there were the fans who took Shakespeare’s work to new audiences through the new printed medium, creating the now invaluable first, second and third folios, and then the millions of edited and translated editions, which are still being churned out today. The burgeoning middle class in the eighteen hundreds whose demand for books created the market also created the need to “clean up” the more risqué and political parts of Shakespeare’s plays – some to such an extend that there bare little resemblance to the originals – think King Lear without the fool! And as Shakespeare’s profile grew so too did the temptation to forge his works, and the first published editions of his works. Not to mention the role of Stratford-upon-Avon and the enterprising townsfolk who capitalised and continue to do so – on literary tourism on a grand scale.
Lynch concludes his survey of how Shakespeare become the Shakespeare – “Few people thought highly of Shakespeare in the 1630s and 1640s; as his reputation rose in the 1670s and 1680s he still lagged behind Ben Jonson and John Fletcher; and even after he was widely celebrated as a genius, he was still a genius badly in need of tidying up. It all seems agonisingly wrongheaded to us: how could generation after generation be so foolish? But its too simplistic to dismiss thousands of editors, actors, critics, readers and auditors as being stupid and tasteless for two centuries. Something else must be going on. My argument here is that they were largely right: Shakespeare was merely good, ‘very good’ by the standards of his own age and the age that followed. He became “great” only later.”