The Further Works of William Shakespeare
Preface by Oliver Pollen
A nasty debate has raged on for decades in essentially every liberal arts department across the globe. It goes like this: Who, out of history’s most noteworthy deceased authors, would be most entertaining on an intimate lunch date? The haughty vitriol typically associated with these arguments has always reminded me of a truism that is alternately attributed to Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain and Henry Kissinger: “The politics of academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”
The stakes have always been low, of course, because until now such debates have been purely hypothetical. But in this age of sophisticated organic fabrication and discreet genome compositing, the matter of lunch is eclipsed by a far more ominous question – lunch and then what? I submit this remarkable digital volume as one potential answer. For the moment, let’s ignore murky ethics and arcane sciences that have brought about The Further Works of William Shakespeare; the cultural significance of the four plays, six essays, and one television pilot script collected here simply cannot be argued against.
Truth be told, I have been rankled by this project since day one, when I watched the live stream of that rickety crane hoisting the dirt filled coffin from the Earth at Stratford-upon-Avon. Honestly, what did we expect? Did any among us truly believe that some biological puppet, given contentious life in a laboratory, would yield us another Hamlet? Another King Lear? This was our Shakespeare, after all; could we not, in our fervor for new applications of genetic sciences, even be troubled to honor the message on his epitaph? “Blessed be the man who spares these stones, And cursed be he who moves my bones.”
And yet the global success of The Most Excellent HBO Miniseries of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England, which dominated the Emmy Awards last spring, seems to suggest that we not only could afford to reanimate Shakespeare, but that we should have. After all, Shakespeare is the definitive poet; the center of our canon of literature. He is the very architect of our Western consciousness. Why shouldn’t he have an Emmy Award? And besides, the Churchill series is certainly the Bard’s finest work of the modern era, a sweepingly global narrative in the vein of Antony and Cleopatra.
Of course the ur-popular artist Shakespeare would gravitate toward television and excel there; Shakespeare as “high culture” is a decidedly modern invention, and any ravings one might read online to the contrary are just rehashings of the same asinine literati baggage that has plagued the endeavor since its instigation. The geneticists at the Genome North Institute consulted with many of us Ivy League knuckleheads in those early days, after Shakespeare’s four hundred year old remains had been thoroughly analyzed. It was possible, they explained with unsettling excitement, to reconstruct not only the living body of Shakespeare from his crude genetic matter, but also, with exhaustive mapping and replication, to create a nearly perfect reconstruction of his consciousness from any moment of his life. As such, they sought input from the literary community to learn how this cloned reconstruction – or “Shakespeare 2.0” – could be of the most worth to the world. I suppose some disappointing revelations were to be expected by reviving Shakespeare at 54, the approximate age of his first death.
For starters, by way of this contemporary Shakespeare – who I shall henceforth refer to simply as “Will” to distinguish him from the historical Shakespeare – we now have a marvelously wrought autobiographical essay that begins this volume, Of Glover Born and As a Fool Made Flesh, which stirs up as much new trouble in the Bard’s original life as it resolves. Even the most adamant Bardologist will happily surrender a few select passages from the works to the mercy of unnamed “revisers” throughout the years, as foul papers passed between hands. Yet in the Glover essay, Will shockingly claims that the posthumous “shuffling” of his text by editors’ goes much further. As such, newly “restored” versions of Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and Othello are to be collected in a forthcoming volume. The less said about these far inferior edits, which au currant academics have contemptuously classified as the “Special Editions,” the better.
In fact, I could not even bring myself to reread any of Will’s four contemporary plays until I undertook the task of annotating them for this collection. Admittedly, Saint Paul of Tarsus, The Most Treacherous Passage of Captain Sir John Franklin, Young Harry in the Sublime Ottoman State (or The Last Stand of the Mountbatten Kings), and The True Chronicle of the Two-Fold Fate of Her Ladyship Miley of Cyrus are a far cry from Shakespeare’s high tragedies and comedies of the Elizabethan era. But I am now happy to pronounce them as eminently readable, even if only in the interest of history. Case in point: I had the pleasure of seeing Will himself keenly enact the “Three Abbeys” speech from Saint Paul at a gala event at Oxford last April, which concluded marvelously with:
Here I welcome self to the green deep of gathered selves,but one dribble ‘mongst the unbroken swell of once lonely souls.
Indeed, of the many curiosities of this new era of Shakespearean scholarship, certainly the most delightful has been the Bard’s return to acting. In recent years, I have had the pleasure of seeing Will perform dramatic works by David Hare, Alan Aykbourn, and, mind-bogglingly, David Mamet, but none compares to his inaugural performance of the modern era. The Globe Theater, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, mounted a colossal production of Hamlet to celebrate Shakespeare’s return. Will reprised the role of The Ghost of King Hamlet, a part which theatrical legend asserts (rightly, it turns out) he originated. Never have I been so moved by a recitation of the dead king’s desperate plea. “Alas, poor ghost,” indeed.
As a final note, the conspicuous absence of Shakespeare’s fifth modern play, The Most Lamentable Fortune of William Lohman, Merchant of the Americas, is not a critique of its quality, but rather a result of the ongoing litigation between Will and the estate of Arthur Miller. As I often tell my students at Leeds, plagiarism is a legal distinction, not a literary one, and in Shakespeare’s day it was not unheard of for a playwright to see a production of a play, enjoy it, and then compose their own version as a kind of tribute. In the interest of completeness, I hope that such matters will resolve themselves in time for a later edition.
Later edition! I am old enough to remember a starved time when a mere personal letter from Shakespeare would have shaken Western Literature to its core; when even a grocery list might have kept us occupied for a few decades! Now, contrary to old King Lear’s warning, something has come of nothing. Now we have been given new material, new Shakespeare in abundance – or perhaps we have been cursed with it? Indeed, some stones should be spared. Some bones ought never be moved, for now the mystique of Shakespeare, that once lonely soul, is utterly evaporated forever. We have brought Shakespeare back to the table, along with so many other scientifically replicable things we felt we couldn’t deny ourselves, and now no polite dismissal or blinking of the lights can ever shoo him off again.
As they say, there truly is no such thing as a free lunch.
Dr. Oliver Pollen is a senior professor of Comparative Literature at The University of Leeds. He is the author of several books, including most recently Out Brief Candles or Wretched Queens Adieu: The Sad Deaths of Shakespeare’s Women.