A Shakespeare scholar takes on the “biggest enigma in literature.”
Shortly after William Shakespeare died in 1616, friends and scholars began looking for his books, figuring that he must have had many. Shakespeare was notorious for borrowing plots and characters from histories and literary works. Where were these source books? Shakespeare’s brief will makes no mention of them. This is the premise of historian and award-winning author Kells’ (The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, 2018, etc.) look “through the lens of the searchers themselves,” a search that “bears upon fundamental principles of art, history, meaning and truth.” It’s an engaging and provocative contribution to the unending world of Shakesperiana. On his wide-ranging journey, Kells discovered many intriguing clues, but the mystery of the missing library remains unsolved. The author notes that besides a missing library, there were no manuscripts, letters, or diaries. This leads to his insightful discussion of the “ ‘Shakespeare Authorship Question’—how he worked, what he wrote and, most controversially, whether he wrote at all.” Kells takes on the detractors with gusto, especially those promoting Shakespeare’s contemporary, the diplomat Sir Henry Neville. Along the way, the author entertains us with a fascinating publishing history of the plays and stories of famous book collectors. “To reach something like the truth,” he writes, “we must walk through noxious territory, consort with cranks and rogues.” Kells also provides a revealing assessment of the famous 1623 First Folio, the first collection of the plays. Authoritative? It’s an “unreliable source,” Kells writes. “Posthumous, incomplete, error-ridden; produced by piratical publishers and hidden editors.” He concludes with the tantalizing Littlewood Letter, “arguably the most important Shakespeare letter in the world today—provided, of course, it is genuine.” On the whole, Kells delivers reams of arcane bibliographical information with humor and wit.
Even though the narrative bogs down in the middle under the figurative weight of bibliomania, overall, this is an enchanting work that bibliophiles will savor and Shakespeare fans adore.