Stuart Kells skewers myths about Shakespeare with scholarship and wit

by Anna Rogers / 10 October, 2018
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William Shakespeare. Photo/Alamy

Countless books on Shakespeare have not prevented the proliferation of myths about the Bard’s birth, upbringing, education and works.

When Polonius asks Hamlet what he’s reading, the reply is, “Words, words, words.”

How many millions have been written about William Shakespeare? What is known about his life would fill an extremely modest number of pages, but this has not prevented the proliferation of myths, ideas and philosophies about the Bard’s birth, upbringing, education and works. Can there possibly be anything else to say?

Australian book-trade historian Stuart Kells thinks so, and his chosen topic is the great man’s library. Shakespeare was famously magpie-like, often borrowing themes and plots – as Kells reminds us, plagiarism was not an Elizabethan concept – but he also referred to a rich and wide range of subjects and sources, for which he would have needed books. Over four centuries, a compelling cast of characters has hunted for this lost Tudor treasure. Sometimes, when they couldn’t find it, they simply made it up. Kells reveals breathtakingly brazen frauds, forgeries and filching, careful and admirable scholarship – and some wonderful madness. There was, for instance, the earl who often had his books washed “to remove antique soiling and inscriptions”, or Dr Orville Ward Owen, of Detroit, who designed a machine to read the messages hidden in Shakespeare’s plays.

Kells’ style is easy yet erudite, and often very funny: he describes one bibliomaniac as “gripped by the kind of competitive jealousy normally seen only in ice-skating”. He admits cheerfully to his own obsessions, but remains blessedly sensible, articulate and unafraid of a spot of iconoclasm.

He calls time on some well-established notions, and takes an intelligently applied hatchet to some of the hagiography. Was William Shakespeare really Henry Neville? Kells has great fun debunking this “heresy”.

In his view, Shakespeare’s probable working method was one of “gradualism and collectivism”. He used whatever material was available to pen topical, popular plays that were ideal for performance. But, before they were printed, they needed refining – editing – by others, both in his lifetime and after his death.

Such a view may rattle the reverent, but there is thought and conviction behind Kells’ suggestions. The lack of manuscripts or books with authentic signatures or inscriptions may, he thinks, be perfectly explicable, especially now that Shakespeare is regarded as “worldly, workmanlike, unsentimental”.

In the end, perhaps, it matters not a fig whether Shakespeare had a library, or, if he did, where it is. As this fresh and entertaining book reminds us, untouched by all the chicanery, the belief-stretching theories, the crazy cryptographers and the single-minded collectors, are the words, words, words that make up those incomparable plays and sonnets.

SHAKESPEARE’S LIBRARY: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature, by Stuart Kells (Text Publishing, $40)

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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