The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0336 Friday, 10 April 1998.
From: Daniel Traister <
Date: Thursday, 9 Apr 1998 09:20:31 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Shakespeare's Continuing Appeal
Making Books: Shakespeare's Continuing Appeal
By MARTIN ARNOLD
The New York Times, April 9, 1998
Bardolatry in the Backlists: Shakespeare's Continuing Appeal
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NEW YORK-Yo, Shakespeare! American book publishers should lift a draught
for you on your upcoming birth- and death day, and vow not to drumble
the plays and sonnets but to publish them featly, since the work makes
up the greatest backlist of any writer in history.
And such an easy backlist to build. There are no copyrights to worry
about, no advances to negotiate, no book parties and tours to plan. No
author royalties. Moreover, anyone with a laptop can publish an
anthology or any of the plays and sell it off the back of a truck if
April 23 is the 434th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and the 382nd
anniversary of his death. Nearly every large publishing complex in this
country has its very own Shakespeare backlist. Last year, to more or
less coincide with the birthday, W.W. Norton published a new anthology,
"The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition." It was a fat
3,420 pages and was priced at $44.95.
Norton estimated that 50,000 to 60,000 people in this country needed or
wanted Shakespeare's complete works in an anthology. Since the Norton
publication, 460 schools, colleges and universities have adopted this
particular anthology, said a spokeswoman for the publisher. And while
Norton refuses to give out the number of actual sales, she said that
some of the institutions bought 500 copies each.
So to say that Shakespeare still kindles zestful interest is an
understatement. For instance, the huge Borders bookstore at 57th Street
and Park Avenue has eight shelves devoted to Shakespeare's work and
three more of nothing but Shakespeare criticism. And the Brooklyn
Academy of Music has its own Shakespeare extravagances throughout the
year, including symposiums, movie screenings and plays for
schoolchildren in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company's
appearance. Shakespeare is also booming on the Internet.
This year, to more or less go hand and hand with the birthday, a new fan
club, the Shakespeare Society of America, was founded in New York City
by two women, Adirana Mnuchin and Nancy Becker, who had previously been
a founder of the now defunct Beethoven Society. "It's a society for all
of us who are not academics but who love Shakespeare," Mrs. Mnuchin
said. In short, for amateurs. And since Mrs. Mnuchin has had experience
in retailing, she said she hoped that the society would eventually have
chapters in Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta, a sort of Shakespearean
"There are Shaw and Wilde and Austen societies, but as far as we can
find out, ours is the only Shakespeare society in existence" of this
kind, she said. There are, of course, academic associations or
conferences attached to universities and colleges, but they are for the
professionals. The most important of these is the Shakespeare
Association of America.
And there is the influential Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington,
whose director, Dr. Werner Gundersheimer, said he was delighted to learn
of the new society, that "the house of Shakespeare has many rooms."
The society can "be a good clearinghouse in New York for Shakespeare
stuff there," he said. "Essentially, it's for interested and
knowledgeable amateurs, like the Medieval Academy."
Certainly there is something intellectually invigorating in the thought
that there is, in Gundersheimer's words, "Shakespeare stuff" floating
about New York City. All the society has to do, it would seem, is gather
and collect it at its office (45 E. 78th Street in Manhattan) before it
is chewed over at one of the programs the organization is planning for
its inaugural year.
So far, the new society has 144 members, Mrs. Mnuchin said. And while
they all may be hobbyists, the organization does have a heady academic
and artistic advisory committee, whose honorary chairman is Harold Bloom
of Yale and whose artistic director is Prof. Peter Saccio of Dartmouth.
It also has a commitment not to deconstruct Shakespeare but to study him
as if he were a contemporary.
What accounts for Shakespeare, the cult figure? Lawrence W. Levine, in
his book "Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in
America" (Harvard University Press, 1988), speculated that Americans
have always been fascinated by the individual standing alone-the western
movie hero, for instance-and by wild and bold characters who master
Furthermore, Shakespeare may be the first writer to make many women
characters at least as complex as men, often a lot more interesting, and
just as bold, all of which is thoroughly modern.
Yes, as all his scholars point out, his psychological insights are
dazzlingly today. Also, there's often enough blood and guts to satisfy a
John Woo movie buff.
Still, Gundersheimer does not underestimate Shakespeare's most obvious
and distinguishing appeal, the beauty of his language: "The kids who
responded to 'Romeo and Juliet' were not only responding to Leonardo
DiCaprio, not just to the beauty of the actor, but also to the beauty of
the language," he said. "I'd be interested in knowing whether or not the
actor also believes they were responding not only to him but the
language as well." He might have pointed out that the movie was made
before DiCaprio became a megastar.
Whatever the reason for Shakespeare's popularity in this country, it
certainly has been consistent and fantastical, and he didn't even write
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company