Will Shakespeare wasn’t always Will Shakespeare. Not that he was the Earl of Oxford or Kit Marlowe: no, in his time, he worked, struggled, sometimes despaired over finances, audiences, reviews, his legacy, and all the other things that a freelance writer and small businessman might agonize over. It wasn’t until seven years after his death, the 400th anniversary of which we will commemorate next month, that his plays were gathered up into a single volume now known as the First Folio, and it was that book that helped enshrine him and build his reputation as a great—and perhaps the greatest—writer in the English language. Thanks to the Folger Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities, copies of the First Folio are touring the nation. It’s very well worth seeing, proof that books can shape our lives—and the future.
Beatrix Potter ranks somewhat lower on the canonical list of British writers than old Will Shakespeare. Still, born 150 years ago in London, she stands high on the list of beloved children’s authors. (And does Harry Potter owe his name to her? It’s a matter worth looking into.) Honoring her and her best-known creation, the Royal Mint has issued a 50-pence coin (about $.70, at the current exchange rate) carrying a portrait of Peter Rabbit. Reports The Guardian, the lagomorph will soon be joined by other Potter characters, from Flopsy and Mopsy to Squirrel Nutkin.
Rodents are one thing, Rome quite another. And will we ever lose our fascination for the Eternal City and its empire? To judge by the success of Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R., whom we recently profiled, our interest continues unabated. Fans of Beard’s excellent book, as well as James Romm’s Dying Every Day, Tom Holland’s Dynasty, and the like, will want to have a look at two examples of what modern technology can bring to our understanding of the ancient world. The first, courtesy of the Melbourne Museum, is a riveting portrait of what happened to the unfortunate residents of Pompeii 1,937 years ago. Leveraging modern computer mapmaking, the Omnes Viae routefinder site allows visitors to chart the quickest routes between Roman settlements. If the Empire had lasted into Shakespeare’s time—and there’s a premise for a speculative novel—and he had wanted to research the circumstances of a certain pair of gentlemen or teenage lovers, he might have hied himself from Londinium to Verona. He would have found it most convenient and most congenial to wander to Durocortorum (Reims, that is), Brigantium (Bregenz), and Mediolanum (Milan) by way of the Alps. Hard work, all that, but a vacation that Mary Beard’s many admirers—and Will Shakespeare’s, for that matter—might find appealing.
The newest member of the Academie Francaise, that august body of Francophone scholars and writers, is the Russian-born novelist Andrei Makine, whose work we have praised. At the tender age of 58, he is apparently the youngest member.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.