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Shakespeare’s Birth and Shakespeare’s Death

James Harriman-Smith - May 1, 2012 in Essay, Musings, News, Review

This post was published by the Royal Shakesepare Company as part of their ‘Happy Birthday Shakespeare’ collection.

Shakespeare's GraveThe date of an author’s death is always more important than that of his birth. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be celebrating Shakespeare’s entry into the world, but rather that we must not lose sight of the importance of his exit, itself taking place (perhaps) fifty-two years to the day after the Bard’s birth. Given that it is possible that Shakespeare, like Cassius in his Julius Caesar, died on his birthday, I will therefore take this occasion to wish him, simultaneously, Happy Birthday and, I suppose, Happy…errr…Anniversary. I have my reasons for this.

You see, I’m interested in copyright. The death of the author is more important than his birth because it is, in many jurisdictions, from this moment that we now measure the time before the author’s works enter into the public domain. Of course, Shakespeare was born, wrote and died at a time when copyright law was rather different, but this certainly doesn’t mean that he has escaped the web of regulations that have governed texts over the years.

Walker's defence of his actions (click for a larger image)

Were it not for the copyright-infringing actions of a part-time printer, part-time seller of home remedies (one Robert Walker), actions that forced a price war and put cheap editions of Shakespeare out on the streets of eighteenth-century London, we probably wouldn’t be celebrating William’s birthday (or, in my case, his death) now. These cheap editions made Shakespeare well known to all, a theatrical commodity at a time when theatres were beleagured and were in desperate need of a name that was “no doubt marketable”. From there, thanks to Garrick, Pope, Voltaire, and many others, the rest is history…and more copyright disputes.

Even though Shakespeare died three hundred and ninety-six years ago, many of his plays are still in copyright. This is not because Shakespeare has become legally immortal, but rather because we have no unquestionably authoritative texts for any of his plays. Instead, every editor decides whether Hamlet wants his “solid”, “sullied” or “sallied” flesh to melt, copyrights his choice and its explanation, and charges all and sundry for the use of his text. A set quantity of years after that editor’s departure from this world, his text becomes free to use. As a result, full access to the latest, most academically-rigorous texts of Shakespeare is always the length of a copyright term away from the those who do not or cannot pay for the privilege.

This is important. Take the visualisations on the RSC’s My Shakespeare website, as an example. The emotional colouring of King Lear may well look a bit different if we follow either a quarto-based or a folio-based edition of the play. Similarly, the quotes used in Branagan’s ‘Shakespeare by Chance’ are obviously dependant on the latest critical readings of a textual crux. Visualisations based on up-to-date texts are thus still a long way off, since Shakespeare is always evolving, each editor and publisher giving his words new life, and thus – to look at it a different way – a new birthday, a new future death, and, following that event, a new distant entry into the public domain.

This is, however, changing. On 23rd April 2012, fittingly enough, PlayShakespeare.com released a modern, critically-rigorous and machine-readable, edition of Shakespeare’s works, choosing to remove all copyright restrictions from the start. Of course, their text will one day be superseded by new literary discoveries, but it certainly brings the public, analysable, free Shakespeare forward by no “small time”. More scrupulous visualisations are of course now possible, but, beyond this, one hopes for larger things. PlayShakespeare.com’s text has the potential to change Shakespeare’s online presence, currently dominated by the out-of-copyright 1898 Moby edition, digitised in 1993.

Even more importantly, it might make us think before we cut and paste what purports to be the Bard on the internet: whose Shakespeare is this? and, ultimately, whose Shakespeare are we wishing Happy Birthday to?

Book Review: Eric Rasmussen, The Shakespeare Thefts

James Harriman-Smith - November 18, 2011 in Essay, Musings, Review

The Shakespeare Thefts begins and ends in the same place, with a preface briefly sketching the genesis of the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, and an appendix adding a little detail on the topic. Between these two descriptions, Eric Rasmussen has gathered a great number of anecdotes and stories all related to the transmission of what the blurb rightly calls “one of the most sought-after books in the world”, known to all as the ‘First Folio’. Many of these anecdotes are the fruit of the research that he and his team have carried out in the compilation of The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, to be published later this month, whilst many more are drawn from existing studies either of Elizabethan England or of the more famous owners of a First Folio. The entire volume, from preface to appendix, consists of a little less than two hundred pages.

As its length would indicate, this is not intended as a scholarly study of the cultural significance of First-Folio ownership; rather, it is, as Rasmussen himself notes in his acknowledgements, a “trade book”. In this respect, there is a great deal here for the Shakespeare enthusiast if not for the Shakespeare expert, and all presented in small, bite-size chunks. Sometimes even an enthusiast might wish for a little more detail, however. My favourite chapter, that detailing Charles I’s First Folio and his annotations of the work, is remarkable for using the historical object as a window into Charles’ imprisonment and mental state, but such an approach is all too brief and lasts only for a mere two pages in a largish font. The next chapter takes us to the bar in which Quentin Tarantino filmed Kill Bill, and an excited description of how one researcher found a hair trapped in the ink of a First Folio. It is of itself a fascinating idea, but, again, lasts for only a few pages before a chapter on a botched attempt to steal a copy of this book takes its place. Despite this endless variety, Rasmussen is able to provide us with little facts at every turn, and it is a testament to his knowledge of the subject, that he is able to wear it all so lightly indeed.

I must confess that as I continued with this book, I had the guilty desire that Rasmussen would depart from what actually happened to the First Folios and begin a fictitious account. Although much of what The Shakespeare Thefts reveals confirms the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, one can’t help but think that fiction is still often much neater and more readable than truth. So many different things have happened to so many different copies of the First Folio that it would have been impossible to impose a single narrative on them all, and the problems of this constantly moving text are to a certain extent the problems of its topic. The title of the work makes for a particularly good example: it tries to impose some order with the word “Thefts”, but many of the anecdotes told within have little to do with larceny at all. The title, perhaps revealingly, also makes me think of J.L. Carrell’s successful The Shakespeare Secret (2008), a book which does use fiction to create a riveting, coherent narrative out of the multitudinous facts of manuscript transmission.

I enjoyed this book, and after having eagerly turned all its pages, finished it in possession of several new tidbits of information that I did not possess before, such as the fact that a clause in a Japanese will has hidden a Folio from the world for thirteen years, and that the bullet lodged in one Folio stopped at Titus Andronicus. For this, I would recommend the book as a stocking-filler for a Shakespeare buff, although, even then, be prepared to find the aforesaid buff perhaps wanting a little more when he has consumed this book.

One final comment, as one of those in charge of a website devoted to making information about Shakespeare as widely accessible, as open, as possible. At several points, Rasmussen correctly emphasises the importance of the detailed descriptions that he and his team have made of each Folio, since these descriptions make those volumes “The World’s Worst Stolen Treasures”, capable of being recognised by anyone with the information he has codified. Unfortunately, the fruits of Rasmussen’s research are only available in the weighty tome that is The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, and would, I believe, be of greater service to the scholarly community as an online database. I do not know if his publishers have such plans, but given the evident wealth of information available, it really does seem a logical step.

Further, if this database one day became open access, then everyone, their appetite whetted by Rasmussen’s little book, would be able to marvel at the strange and true accounts all jostling for space in The Shakespeare Thefts.