To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author William Shakespeare

Ben Jonson
In Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, histories & tragedies, published according to the true originall copies.
London: printed by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623

Ben Jonson wrote this elegy for his friend and sometime rival to stand at the front of the first collected works of Shakespeare. The poem is a tour de force for the genre, offering both heartfelt and hyperbolic praise of the departed poet, whom he places among the stars to guide future writers. We include it in this exhibit because Jonson addresses Shakespeare directly as a “character” in several places, as here:

Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

It is this poem that gives us so many apt epithets for Shakespeare including: “Soul of the age!”; “the wonder of our stage!”; “Sweet Swan of Avon!”; and “He was not of an age but for all time!”

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What neede my Shakespeare

John Milton
In Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies.
London: by Thomas Cotes, for John Smethwick, William Aspley, Richard Hawkins, Richard Meighen, and Robert Allot, 1632

This poem of sixteen lines is written in heroic couplets. It resembles a Shakespearean sonnet, but exceeds it by an additional couplet. Milton addresses Shakespeare as “Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,” and asks, “What needs my Shakespeare” any eulogy? You have built yourself a “live-long monument,” he tells Shakespeare, akin to a “pyramid” or a monarch’s “tomb.” The poem therefore becomes an exercise in paralepsis: Milton memorializes Shakespeare by explaining to the dead poet that such commemoration is superfluous, and demonstrates his own rival poetic skill by protesting how Shakespeare’s “fancy” forestalls and overawes his own, as well as his contemporaries: “thou, our fancy of itself bereaving, / Dost make us marble with too much conceiving.” —PG

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Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions

George Romney
Copperplate engraving by Benjamin Smith for The Boydell Shakespeare Prints
London: J. & J. Boydell, 1799

The birth of Shakespeare, as described in Thomas Gray’s Progress of Poesy (1757), was a favorite subject of Romney’s. “Nature unveils her face to her favorite Child” with Comedy and Tragedy on either side of him. To the right of Nature are Love, Hatred & Jealousy; on her left, Anger, Envy, and Fear.

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Shakespeare’s Insomnia and the Causes Thereof

Franklin H. Head
Chicago: S. A. Maxwell, 1886

This short jeu d’esprit (72 pp.) presents insomnia as the “chronic terror of all men of active life who have passed the age of thirty-five or forty years,” a product of “cares and perplexities of life” and true of our ancestors, even before the days of “telegraphs and railroads,” “working steam and electricity,” and the “mad race for fame and wealth” characteristic of America. Shakespeare can be trusted as evidence of insomnia in the past, on account of “unequalled power of observation” and “ability accurately to chronicle his impressions”: he is “the only man ever born who lived and wrote absolutely without bias or prejudice.” Head cites Emerson: “he reported all things with impartiality.” Quotations from Shakespeare’s plays about sleeplessness reveal reveals his own “hours of pathetic misery, his nights of desolation.” Fictional letters from Will Kemp, Nicholas Bottom, Mordecai Shylock, and other contemporaries both real and imagined are presented as evidence that Shakespeare was kept awake by anxiety about investments, debts, and marital problems. —PG

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Virginia Woolf
London: Hogarth Press, 1928

Shakespeare lurks in the background of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” as the twin brother of the imagined Judith Shakespeare, of course, but there we view him only as the privileged male, whose genius is allowed to develop in a patriarchal society. In Orlando, we catch glimpses of a more sympathetic Shakespeare during the period when Orlando, now male, inhabits Elizabethan England. Woolf has Robert Greene guffaw to think that Shakespeare might have any staying power, but Woolf sees him as one who, like Orlando, can understand male and female emotion equally well. -VH

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Shakes vs. Shav

A puppet show
George Bernard Shaw
London: Constable & Co., 1950

George Bernard Shaw, the man who coined the word “bardolatry” to describe—and criticize–our excessive fascination with Shakespeare, was not above bringing Shakespeare into his fiction. Here, in his last dramatic work, Shaw pits himself against the Bard in a brief puppet show written for the Lanchester Marionettes in Malvern in 1949. In ludicrous verbal sparring, the two playwrights debate the purpose of drama and their own relative literary worth until Shakespeare finally takes it upon himself to “put out the light.”

Shaw on Shakespeare: “I am convinced that he was very like myself. In fact, if I had been born in 1556 instead of in 1856, I should have taken to blank verse & given Shakespear [sic] a harder run for his money than all the other Elizabethans put together.” —VH

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Loves Labours Wonne

Don Nigro
New York: Samuel French, 1981

In this five-act play, a slightly spifflicated Shakespeare reviews his life as a man and artist. He wanders into the empty playhouse, where spirits from his life, his longings, and his own inspired works arise to review his time on earth with him. As they torment, taunt, or tantalize him, we gain some insight into Shakespeare’s artistic temperament and creative process.

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Sandman Series

Neil Gaiman
“Men of Good Fortune” in The Doll’s House, Sandman 2/13 (1995); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Dream Country, Sandman 3/19 (1995); and “The Tempest” in The Wake, Sandman 10/75 (1997)
New York: DC Comics

Shakespeare appears as a character in three of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. In “Men of Good Fortune,” we find Shakespeare, not only speaking admiringly to Christopher Marlowe, but also apparently on the verge of a Faustian deal: “I would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams that would live on long after I am dead. I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.” And, in fact, a deal is made, not with the devil, but with Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. The other two stories deal with the plays Shakespeare writes, inspired by Morpheus, but not at the price of Shakespeare’s soul. As the Morpheus says, “There is no witchcraft, Will, no magic. I opened a door within you, that was all.” There may, however, be a cost, as Shakespeare’s craft consumes him, even at the cost of his personal life and family relations. Though the Lord of Dreams provides the stuff of inspiration, the characters and themes come from within Shakespeare himself, who says of The Tempest: “I am Prospero, certainly, … But I am also Ariel – A flaming, firing spirit, crackling like lightning in the sky. And I am dull Caliban. I am dark Antonio, brooding and planning, and old Gonzalo, counseling silly wisdom. And I am Trinculo, the jester, and Stephano the butler, for they are clowns and fools, and I am also a clown and a fool, and on occasion, drunkard.” –VH

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Shakespeare & Smythe mystery series

Simon Hawke
Mystery of Errors (2000), The Slaying of the Shrew (2001), Much Ado About Murder (2002), The Merchant of Vengeance (2003)
New York: Forge

Four mystery novels (thus far?) featuring Will Shakespeare, an aspiring writer, and Symington “Tuck” Smythe, a young actor, as they solve murder mysteries in the interstices between the London theatre scene and the world of Elizabethan intrigue. Who could resist such titles as: A Mystery of Errors, The Slaying of a Shrew, Much Ado About Murder, and our favorite, The Merchant of Vengeance?

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Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions

Graham Holderness
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014

Renowned critic Graeme Holderness observes that we study and read Shakespeare academically not in isolation from his presence in popular culture, but within a continuum with it; and he argues for the value of writing creatively, as well as critically about Shakespeare. To this end, Holderness investigates, and then imagines fictionally, the possible performances of Hamlet and Richard II on board a ship off the coast of Africa in 1707, and writes a dramatic version of Kipling’s ‘Proofs of Holy Writ’, in which St Peter’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s work allows Shakespeare to leave Purgatory for Heaven. The short story ‘The Lonely Dragon’ mashes up Ralph Fiennes’s post-Cold War film of Coriolanus with the chariot race from Ben-Hur and the quasi-maternal relationship between Judi Dench’s M and Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Skyfall. The volume closes with meditations on Shakespeare after 9/11 and the suicide bombing of the Doha Players’ performance of Twelfth Night in Qatar. —SJJ.