Shakespeare in the Limelight

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Shakespeare in the Limelight: "Words, Words, Words" (and Plays and Poetry)

April 13, 2009
by Gerit Quealy
Born in England in the 16th century, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays are still published, produced, discussed, translated and analyzed in the 21st century. The Bard himself remains the subject of speculation and mystery. In honor of National Poetry Month and the month of his birth, our Shakespeare series examines the man, the controversies, his work and its central place in English-speaking culture today.

The Works of Shakespeare

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He has more books written about him than any other writer. He’s the most produced playwright. There are more films of his work than of any other writer, including ones you might not immediately recognize, like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “The Lion King.” He has more quotes in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” than the Bible does. In fact, you probably quote him at least once a day without even knowing it.
Shakespeare's canon consists of 37 (or thereabouts) plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems: “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” (with many others attributed to him as well). There’s also the copious amount of analysis, criticism, commentary, discussion and debate connected with the works and their author.
Professor Harold Bloom charged Shakespeare with “inventing the human.” Certainly he is credited with fomenting the English language. More than 25,000 words exist in the canon; many of them—roughly 1,500coined by him. But it’s largely because of his plays that he’s called the greatest writer in the English language.

Shakespeare's Plays

“The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2. Indeed it is, for the plays are what Shakespeare is most famous for. Almost everyone knows the phrases “To be or not to be” or “What’s in a name?” even if they don’t know where they come from. Shakespeare’s lines are part of our everyday vernacular more than we realize. And the characters and plots live and breathe (and reflect our lives) even today, despite the sometimes archaic language: Richard Nixon as Richard II, O.J. Simpson as Othello. Even Steven Spielberg admits Shakespeare just about said it all.

Shakespeare's Poems

Shakespeare’s sonnets, published in 1609, have become his most famous poems. The playwright’s name was first introduced to the public as a poet with his narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” Both are dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, which has led scholars to believe that the Fair Youth of the sonnets is also Southampton. But there is nothing connecting the two men, and dedications were often used to seek patronage rather than confirm its existence.

The Apocrypha of Shakespeare

“A Lover’s Complaint” and “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” two other poems ascribed to Shakespeare, have a little controversy around them. Even though “A Lover’s Complaint” was printed alongside the 1609 “Sonnets” and is in the same rhyme scheme as “Lucrece,” the enigmatic dedication to the “Sonnets" by publisher Thomas Thorpe has caused consternation through the centuries.
Thorpe also published a poem in 1612 called “A Funeral Elegy” that was signed "W.S." Don Foster (famed for outing the “anonymous” author of "Primary Colors") used computer analysis to identify the poem as Shakespeare’s, but this conclusion was later discredited. Evidence now points toward Jacobean dramatist John Ford as its author.
But scholars are keen to attribute even more anonymous 16th-century works to Shakespeare. In his book “Shakespeare’s Edward III,” Eric Sams argued so effectively on behalf of that play’s addition to the roster that many collected editions now include it.

Why We Have It

This abundance of apocrypha points to how extraordinary it is that we have the works at all. Many of the plays were published in quarto version beginning in the late 1590s into the 1600s, but fully half of the plays didn’t appear in print until the First Folio of 1623
The First Folio itself is rather unusual. Ben Jonson started the trend in 1616 by publishing his own collected works. He is largely responsible for the memorable sentiments about Shakespeare in the front matter of the First Folio. Fellow Globe shareholders John Heminge & Henry Condell generally get credit for compiling the volume. Nevertheless, once published, the work did, indeed, “shine forth.” Although it fell out of favor for a bit, its popularity began to grow, as did curiosity about its author. By the dawn of the 18th century, Shakespeare’s works were much in demand; even today, his popularity shows no sign of diminishing.
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