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Scott Newstok: How to Speak with Shakespeare

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Scott Newstok: How to Speak with Shakespeare

“Books speak to us. They call to us across long time, and we converse with them by reading them into our lives.”


William Shakespeare, the Chandos Portrait, 1610. Image courtesy WikiCommons/National Portrait Gallery.

By Scott Newstok 

This past Sunday, April 23, was UNESCO’s International Day of the Book. First observed in 1995, this celebration of reading is timed to coincide with the 1616 death dates of William Shakespeare and Peruvian chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, as well as the burial of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes. Yet while all three authors technically share that same April 23 date, Shakespeare didn’t die on the same day. How can that be so? Spain had shifted to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, while England continued following the Julian model until 1752. Because of these conflicting calendars, Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil ten days after Vega and Cervantes.

April 23 might well have been Shakespeare’s birthday, too. His baptism was recorded as having taken place on today’s date, April 26, 1564. In Tudor England, baptism usually occurred a few days after birth, so tradition (and some wishful symmetry!) presumes that his birthday was also April 23 — further coinciding with the feast day of the patron saint of England, St. George (Catalonia’s Sant Jordi).

We’re already hearing a lot about another Shakespearean anniversary, the quatercentenary of his collected plays’ publication in 1623. His friends (and fellow actors) gathered the materials for this posthumous volume, since known as the “First Folio” on account of its large-page (“folio”) format. I liken it to a coffee-table book: a handsome if bulky book, likely purchased with a bit of conspicuous consumption in mind.

First Folio in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. (WikiCommons).

This collection included 36 plays (though no poems) — that’s nearly all of the dramas attributed to him (with the except of Pericles, a late ‘romance’). Half of these plays had already been published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, in the cheaper, smaller, “quarto” format (akin to a throwaway paperback today).

But the other half of them weren’t yet printed, and appeared here for the first time. Were it not for the First Folio, we wouldn’t be able to read All’s Well That Ends WellAntony and CleopatraAs You Like ItThe Comedy of ErrorsCoriolanusCymbelineHenry VI, Part 1Henry VIIIJulius CaesarKing JohnMacbethMeasure for MeasureThe Taming of the ShrewThe TempestTimon of AthensTwelfth NightThe Two Gentlemen of Verona, or The Winter’s Tale. Many high school students would likely be relieved if they never had to plod through “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” But even just the loss of the reconciliation between Leontes and Hermione would be enough to make me grateful for this nearly 1,000-page tome.

It’s easy for scholars like me to scoff at the way the First Folio has since become fetishized. Too many people have treated it as a kind of literary monument, leading others to want to dismantle it. Like the Gutenberg Bible, it’s attained an overly-iconic prestige, associated with an overly-iconic author. (Some actors even go so far as to believe that its very punctuation demands inflexible reverence — an idolization that conveniently overlooks the many human hands that assembled these pages, seven years after Shakespeare’s decease).

Yet the book itself already invites us to treat it as an ambivalent monument, as announced through its memorializing, marmorealizing gestures, including a bust-like portrait alongside tributes praising the playwright as “a monument, without a tomb.” When the Second Folio came out in 1632, a poem was added by the young John Milton, who we know read the First Folio closely, thanks to the recent discovery of his handwritten notes in a copy now held in Philadelphia.

Milton’s poem — titled “An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare” — cannily confronts the already-daunting nature of the First Folio:

What neede my Shakespeare for his honour’d bones,
The labor of an Age, in piled stones
Or that his hallow’d Reliques should be hid
Under a starre-ypointing Pyramid?
Dear Sonne of Memory, great Heire of Fame,
What needst thou such dull witnesse of thy Name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thy selfe a lasting Monument:
For whil’st to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring Art
Thy easie numbers flow, and that each part,
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued Booke,
Those Delphicke Lines with deepe Impression tooke
Then thou our fancy of her selfe bereaving,
Dost make us Marble with too much conceiving;
And so Sepulcher’d in such pompe dost lie,
That Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die. 

In an ingeniously shifting address, Milton ponders: “Why would you even need a monument, Shakespeare? You’ve built your own, through your writing. Your achievement astonishes us (literally: turns us into stone) — so we become marble, frozen with thinking too much on your work. Yet that’s the greatest tomb you could have.”

While I’ve always loved Milton’s complicated compliment to his predecessor, these days I most admire how it stages a conversation with Shakespeare’s Folio as a book. That book is admittedly imposing; in fact, many copies stood unread for centuries on private library shelves! Yet somehow that book manages to speak to us, not only as an imposition, but as something still vibrant — indeed, a “live-long Monument,” whose “leaves” (pages) “impress” themselves upon our “heart”s.

Milton’s cleverly conversing with Shakespeare’s own verse, particularly Sonnet 55, which imagines poetry as “The living record of your memory.” A dozen years later, in 1644, Milton would capture the peculiar vivacity of a good book when he described it as “the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, could well have had Milton in mind when he lauded books as “living friends”: “The more life embodied in the book, the more companionable.”

It’s an old conceit: we talk to books, and they talk back to us. Seneca depicted himself as “absorbed in conversation with my books”; he couldn’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t want to “have access to all ages . . . to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness.” Petrarch described his books as his “secret friends” who “teach me to endure, to have no longing, to know myself.” In a famous 1513 letter, Machiavelli related how he would retreat to his private study, where “I am not ashamed to speak with [ancient writers] and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me.” Borges claimed that Emerson “wrote somewhere that a library is a kind of magic cavern which is full of dead men. And those dead men can be reborn, can be brought to life when you open their pages.” Generations of enslaved people were keenly aware that gaining access to “talking books” was the key to literacy — and ultimately, to freedom.

So let’s continue that “conversation with the deceased,” where you “listen to the dead” with your eyes, in the jarringly apt image of Shakespeare’s Spanish contemporary Francisco de Quevedo. Books speak to us. They call to us across long time, and we converse with them by reading them into our lives. We respond to them not only by jotting on their pages, but by letting their words animate our speech. As Sonnet 81 envisions:

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’erread;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live—such virtue hath my pen—
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Four hundred years later, we are those eyes that were not yet created; we are those tongues that re-hearse (hear the lively pun against the deathly hearse?); we are those mouths through which these words breathe anew.

Scott Newstok (photo by Chip Chockley)

Scott Newstok is the founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College and the author of How to Think like Shakespeare, from which this essay was adapted. His first TFP essay, “Well, Shakespeare, He’s in the Alley,” was featured in Substack Reads, the best writing, ideas and art from the world of Substack.

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