“ To the memory of my beloued, / The Author / Mr. William Shakespeare: / And / what he hath left us,” begins Ben Jonson’s second dedicatory poem to the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1623. And, as Remembering Shakespeare reveals, the question of what, precisely, he has left us has persisted over five centuries. Although the value of this legacy has seldom been in dispute, its meaning has never been fixed, whether in Shakespeare’s lifetime, or following his death, in the memories of his colleagues and contemporaries, or still later, as subsequent ages, including our own, continued and continue to remember and re-imagine him.
“Reader, looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke,” wrote Jonson. And yet, as the Yale University collections demonstrate, the publication of any book, let alone a book offering itself as a definitive edition of Shakespeare’s works, was only ever the consequence of the always unpredictable circumstances of both the theater and the print shop in which Shakespeare’s remarkable imagination was made visible to readers and audiences. In notebooks, in variant editions, in performances and adaptations, Shakespeare’s memory was written in always shifting lineaments, for motives which often had little if anything to do with Shakespeare’s own.
And yet, the “Booke” of Shakespeare where, as Jonson knows, Shakespeare remains alive, became the book of all books. “Are you not an idolater of Shakespeare?” wrote the author Mary Russell Mitford to a friend in 1811, “I am sure you must be. I would rather give up all the other books that were ever written, retaining his alone, than sacrifice his and retain all the other works of all other authors.” And in 1926, the imagined Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, would for Virginia Woolf effortlessly invoke another universal: all the words not written, published, read, remembered, by authors who existed outside of a literary canon that had come itself to be epitomized by an author whose own works only circumstantially, and inevitably with the aid of others’ agency, came into print or performance.
From Thomas Dowse’s late sixteenth-century quotation from Lucrece to Maynard Mack’s mid-twentieth-century Yale English 34 syllabus (and Walter Wilson Greg’s Shakespeare crossword puzzle) lies one trajectory of the many possible histories of the “Booke” of Shakespeare. It is a history peculiarly traced through the material histories of the many books of Shakespeare, as, over the past three centuries, they have come together in the Yale University collections gathered in this exhibition.