My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We talk of him so much, yet we know of him so little. As George Orwell elliptically put, “Much rubbish about Shakespeare has been written” by anti-Stradifordians as well as Stradifordians, and various sects of Shakespearenism still multiplying and evolving. Nonetheless, William Shakespeare is a heavyweight literary champion and a provocateur of authorship of his popular plays and pearly poems. He is certainly a man of reputation that gives him a status fusing highbrow elitism of a famed writer with a sensuous appeal of modern-day celebrity. In Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells, such academic hullabaloos over Shakespeare’s authorship of his oeuvres are laid bare in the course of Kells’s quest of the existence of Shakespeare’s library, a list of books the Bard owned and a folio of his own manuscripts per se. For the meaning of Shakespeare’s library and its whereabouts are bound up with the authorship question and hold the key to the cardinal principles of humanities and truth.
Much of the debate on the Authorship Question arises from Shakespeare’s non-aristocratic family background despite the erudition of his writing. The book serves as Kells’s scholarly demurrer challenging the claim of Shakespeare’s non-authorship and flagrant plagiarism. Kells demurs at such preposterous allegations that negate the capacity of Shakespeare as a writer on the basis of ambiguity, uncertainty and prejudice. Kells takes a conservative liberal Socratic position of impartial advocate who defends the Bard on the grounds of (1) different social and historical criteria; and (2) the demonstrative evidence of the library at issue. With respect to Shakespeare’s alleged plagiarism, it must be regarded as a common de rigueur literary practice of his day that adopted the ideas from other source texts into an adaptor’s own. Adaptation was a revered literary custom, stretching back to medieval times when a monk modeled other people’s writings on his own because they taught him different styles of writing he wanted to emulate. Shakespeare lived before the advents of copyright and intellectual property law and psychoanalysis with the emergence of the powerful middle-class intellectuals as a substitute of the ecclesiastical caste. Therefore, we must not make an anachronistic mistake of looking at the past with our modern criteria in making parallel with our own time period, measuring the trend of the days against the principles of our day.
Further to the social background, including a lack of formal education and humble family origin, classicism is used as a touchstone of validity of Shakespeare’s authorship as carefully nuanced in this book. Kells as a learned adventurer shines through in this book. Various debates on the Authorship Question are rendered accessible as he pivots deftly from keenly observed details about the source texts to the universally equitable ramifications of his search of Shakespeare’s library in favor of the ingenious Bard. Kells wears his learning lightly here and writes with a general reader in mind, discriminating none regardless of social and cultural differences to invite all in his search of Shakespeare’s library. Shakespeare’s library is his source texts ingeniously combined into his world of imagination populated with star-crossed lovers, fairies, witches, kings, princes and a parade of various walks of life, all manifested in his legacy of literature still revered by all around the world. It is an excellent case of dispersion of collective knowledge throughout society as an Elizabethan-styled meme, a unit of cultural imitation, which is a form of cultural revolution in which art always flourishes.
If Chaucer foundered the bedrock of English literature, Shakespeare popularized it through his appealing works all over the world, making his timeless quotations indexes of wisdom and wits percolated through our daily lives. Rather than as a serious grim-faced man of letters, such as what Leo Tolstoy and his Anglo-Saxon ilk liked to lionize, Shakespeare was a fashionable Elizabethan literary tradesman, a workaday dramatist who had a feat of converting existing works into new kinds of drama, packed full of scintillating wits and memorable lines easy to understand with themes blended with the highbrow concepts and the lowbrow dramas that were contemporaneously popular in Shakespeare’s time. In Shakespeare’s library, readers will meet the Man as he was thanks to Kells’s impressive scholarship of Shakespearean literature and general erudition combined with his Socratic principle of “Knowledge to All” as manifested in his approachable writing style. Moreover, readers will come to know more interesting, more lively and more attractive libertine Shakespeare who was a practical artist with a wordily sense of success and vision to match. For he knew that to create was to recombine by letting his fancy free in his solipsistic library of books and notebooks – his Cabinet of Curiosities in Mind.