Shakespeare: From Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan, 1592-1623

June 2, 2011

Queen Elizabeth II opened the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on 4 March, four years after it closed for a redevelopment costing £115 million. On 30 March, the coalition government, with its trademark combination of indifference and thick-headedness, announced swingeing cuts to the Arts Council budget. It goes without saying that these cuts will precipitate the decline of many arts organisations and the complete disappearance of others. The larger companies (the Royal Shakespeare Company included) are relatively protected in line with another characteristic doctrine of the Con-Dem(nable) position: "To those that have, it shall be given; from those that have not, it shall be taken away."

Katherine Duncan-Jones' latest book offers proof - were it needed - that in purely financial terms (quite apart from questions of cultural or historical enrichment), the arts in general and Shakespeare in particular are a good thing: "Shakespeare's unrivalled success in 'pleasing' is manifest in the lively responses of readers and audiences (over the course of) four centuries."

As Duncan-Jones convincingly demonstrates, early modern theatre, both then and now, attracts not just widespread public interest but significant public investment. It remains to be seen whether the much-vaunted Cultural Olympiad will survive the coalition's current destructive philistinism or fall prey to it. Duncan-Jones' careful analysis of the success story that is Shakespeare's career and afterlife, as well as the early recognition of his cultural importance, offers a glimmer of hope in the teeth of such overweening stupidity.

Shakespeare: From Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan is not a biography, although it does incorporate "some quasi-biographical strands". Rather, it is a study of various reactions to Shakespeare in print and in performance; of "Shakespeare's own agency in shaping his image"; of the rival playwrights; of his relationship to court patronage; and of contemporary responses to his death.

As such, it examines the diversity of impressions made by Shakespeare, his art and his acting company within and upon early modern culture, and comprises a patchwork of intriguing readings rather than a single coherent thesis. But while the chapters are more or less independent of each other, they add up to a clear sense that Shakespeare's "evolving status" was established rapidly and, at least in part, through his own determination.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of this assiduous self-fashioning is Shakespeare's ambition towards armigerous standing. Duncan-Jones notes this was achieved not without contention, pointing out that the very day (20 October 1596) that saw the patents drawn up awarding the coat of arms to Shakespeare's father also saw the publication of the second edition of Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, which accuses Shakespeare of plagiarism. Moreover, in 1602, Ralph Brooke challenged the playwright's entitlement to arms, claiming that the coat had been assigned previously to "a much more ancient and distinguished family". Shakespeare's lowly status as an actor was also to blame. Shakespeare, in this analysis, is characterised as someone who had to assert his own position amid a fiercely hierarchical society.

In chapters on the rival poets, Duncan-Jones demonstrates that Shakespearean self-promotion was as much literary as social. Intriguingly, she suggests that Ben Jonson's paean, Sweet Swan of Avon, arose from a guilty conscience, since Jonson's attack on the chaos of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest appeared just after Shakespeare's death in 1616. But not all reactions were as calculated as Jonson's. She recounts the history of "the paranoid soldier William Reynolds" who "believed that both he and the Queen were vividly represented" in Venus and Adonis. The story demonstrates that while Shakespeare may have striven to construct his standing and reputation, the interpretation and indeed the survival of his work rests squarely with successive cultures.

Shakespeare: From Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan, 1592-1623

By Katherine Duncan-Jones. The Arden Shakespeare, 320pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781408130148. Published 5 May 2011

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