Shakespeare and the Book

David Scott Kastan

Shakespeare and the Book elaborates on the Lord Northcliffe Lectures that David Scott Kastan (professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University) delivered at University College, London, in 1999. The text traces, despite a major gap between the nineteenth century and the advent of the computer, "Shakespeare" from his creation via print to the impact of digitization on both the cult of Shakespeare and future Shakespearean research. The Bard is the focus of the book, but he/it is also an allegory for the history of the book in Western culture.

In his introduction, Kastan addresses the problem with his title (and the need to make titles); namely, the "and." Perhaps, as Kastan muses, to get to the purpose of the book, it should be omitted (Shakespeare the Book). The idea of the book itself is central to Kastan's discussion, beyond Shakespeare's embodiment of it. He addresses the frequent claims that digital technology will replace book technology, or will become digital "substitutes" for print, but notes that through this idea we are thinking about the history of the book and its role in our cultural construction; "the book has become important to us all, if only because the insistent claims of its imminent demise have focused our attention upon what we will lose with its passing" (p. 1). Kastan argues that the medium cannot be separated from the text and is dismissive of the tendency in literary studies to "act as if the words we read have a reality independent of the physical texts in which we engage them" (p. 3). Focusing our attention on the book as more than a container of the text, Kastan sets the stage for the entrance of the Bard. His discussion assumes that the material context of presenting Shakespeare is irrevocably intertwined with how his work is read/received, and that "the specific forms of a text's embodiment - things as vulgarly material as typeface, format, layout, design, even paper . . . are not external to the meaning of the text . . . but rather are part of the text's structures of signification" (p. 5). The text's embodiment, for most of us, is the book, and this is his point of departure for his discussion of Shakespeare and the book.

Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets near the end of a period when the "author" was emerging. Plays were performed on the Elizabethan stage to an audience that coveted not the playwright but rather the players and the performance. The "author" was scarcely noted on either the playbill or printed versions of plays. Kastan assures us that Shakespeare was not interested in printing, but without printing, we would not have Shakespeare today. In establishing the movement of Shakespeare from "playhouse to printing house," Kastan reminds us that the Shakespeare of the printing house "is inevitably something other than Shakespeare - both more or less than his original presence. His corpus is reconstructed by sets of motivation and practices that leave their marks upon the text, distorting it even as they preserve and set it forth" (pp. 15-16). We will know Shakespeare in unmediated form; we know him as a book - many books, various editions, in single plays and complete works.

It is this Shakespeare that Kastan follows to the printing house, embarking on an insightful journey into the origins of drama as a literary genre that was commodified through print. Plays were printed, initially, because they could be. The expectation of profit was not great, and plays were insignificant in terms of the book trade at the time (the late sixteenth century). Plays were ephemera, printed in the hopes that a second edition would be demanded (and thus a profit made). In terms of the history of media, and specifically that of the medium of print, Kastan gives us a glimpse of the book trade and printing shops. In Shakespeare's London, the stationers - not the authors - held claim to a play. This allowed Shakespeare's plays to hit the press with neither his consultation nor his involvement. In fact, many of his plays were published without reference to him at all (e.g., Romeo and Juliet); the authority of the text was "theatrical rather than authorial" (p. 31). Kastan not only explains the conditions that brought us Shakespeare, but also discusses how they have plagued our study of his works; our concerns were not their concerns. Authorship was not an issue, nor were provenance and attribution. Plays were often collaborations in composition and in performance.

In many ways, the book of "Shakespeare," produced in the world Kastan is describing, is probably about as close to the text as it is written as to the performance "As it was Plaide." What we have is the publisher's Shakespeare: "a simulacrum invented to protect and promote the publisher's property" (p. 35). By the time of his death, Shakespeare was a best-selling "author," but it was the printing of what is known as the first folio that made him immortal - and it is that folio that has thrilled and frustrated scholars ever since. Problems of authorship, authenticity, collaboration, editorialization, inconsistencies; tracing the play from authorial to scribal to manuscript to playbook to quarto to folio; working through copyists' marks and printing errors; "good quarto, bad quarto" arguments . . . almost all lead back to that first folio - produced without any collaboration from Shakespeare. But it is Shakespeare we seek. As Kastan explains, "[T]oday much more is at stake than the assertion of Shakespeare's unique authorship, for he has come to play another role he never sought, as the witness and guarantor of western moral and social values" (p. 77).

In Kastan's examination of Shakespeare "from contemporary to classic," he credits this shift to the mass production of the works. If "Shakespeare survived precisely by being accessible and pliant in the hands of lovers" (p. 88), then he owes his survival to the book - printed, distributed, translated, exported, circulated. And edited. Kastan devotes much discussion to the efforts of the editors who sought to "restore" the works of Shakespeare, seeking the "authentic" text that never really existed. The editorial nightmare that is Shakespeare can be summed up by Elizabeth Eisenstein(1983): "Each successive edition tells us more than was previously known about how a given manuscript was composed and copied. By the same token, each makes it more difficult to envisage how a given manuscript appeared to the scribal scholar" (p. 7). While the motivations may differ, both Eisenstein and the Shakespeare editors seek the original, the manuscript, the authentic text.

What is odd about Kastan's discussion is that it essentially drops off in the mid-nineteenth century - and does not really pick up again until the age of the computer. According to Kastan, the first three chapters were an "exploration of the complex motivations and practices of the book trade that took Shakespeare's scripts, written to be performed, and turned them into books to be purchased and read, and in the process turned Shakespeare, through no effort of his own, from a playwright to an author, from a man of theatre to a man in print" (p. 111). Although this serves as a fairly accurate (if inflated) summary thus far, the jump in the final chapter is "from codex to computer." The need for scholarly research to reference our "computer age" is almost tangible here: to skip a century of critical research, adaptations, new discourses, and ways of contextualizing the works of Shakespeare, the entire genre of film, and get right to "the brave new world of electronic texts" (p. 111) is rather surprising from a man who laments the possible extinction of print.

While fully aware of the utopian dreams of a virtual Shakespeare, Kastan suggests that the computer may offer an escape from the trials that dogged editors of Shakespeare's "book." Although the footnotes once threatened to take over Shakespeare's words on the page, a hypertext Complete Works of Shakespeare can include all of the quartos and folios, the changes, the editorial notes, the corrections, and so on that have accumulated over the past four centuries - texts intersecting infinitely. (But Kastan is not oblivious to the paradox that the sheer volume of this work may drive people back to a single, if never completed, text - the book.) Shakespeare has already asserted his authority on this "brave new medium" (Shakespeare sites and hypertext projects abound). In the age of the computer, neither Shakespeare nor the book has disappeared. Computers are no better nor worse than the codex as media for Shakespeare, since neither contains the "authentic" Shakespeare. This is because, as Kastan has illustrated quite remarkably, "[H]e has never been in any of those textual spaces where we pretend he resides" (p. 136).

In Shakespeare and the Book, Kastan makes this argument quite convincingly, but there are (as there always will be) holes in his thesis. One assumption that Kastan makes throughout is that Shakespeare was not interested in printing; his plays were written for the stage (although Kastan warns against us looking for "him" there). Although his plays were printed in his lifetime (the first folio came after), there is no evidence that printing concerned him. Nevertheless, print conserved Shakespeare - as performance cannot. Kastan draws a line between text (specifically, printed text presented in the medium of the book) and performance as distinct modes of production as well as discussion. Thus, while insisting Shakespeare himself was not a literary man (he was a theatre man), Kastan is adamant that the book is Shakespeare's "milieu" (although manuscript was his medium). Somehow this line of reasoning leads Kastan to make the assertion that "Shakespeare's legitimate medium is not merely the theatre but also, if not primarily, the book" (p. 11). This is where Kastan's contruction of "Shakespeare" - the man, the best-selling dramatist, the actor, the playwright, the myth, the aura, the author - is revealed. He is shown to be not an author, but what Foucault calls an "author-function."

Kastan argues that we have only recently critically observed the book as something that is neither natural nor inevitable. Although I do not dispute this, I would argue that his discussion of Shakespeare and the book assumes that Shakespeare himself is somehow natural and inevitable. He does talk about Shakespeare's construction vis-à-vis the book, but not the construction of Shakespeare as "the author," a construction upon which his place in the history of the book depends. The function of "Shakespeare," for Kastan's purposes, is to organize the texts he "authored," at the time in which his works came to be printed, and to evoke the multiplicity of significations that his name carries in our culture. It is Shakespeare's "author-function," not the author himself, whose medium is the book. Kastan does not discuss Shakespeare in these Foucauldian terms, but he is aware of the cachet of the Shakespeare author-function: "[T]he prestige he offers is already less a function of memorable plays enjoyed in the theatre by millions . . . than of their function in print" (p. 13). Shakespeare here is "not a man, but a book" (p. 13).

Also, while Shakespeare may not have been interested in printing his plays, his own works are heavily dependent upon print. Shakespeare's material was not plucked from the air; he relied on histories and classics. For example, many of Shakespeare's references in his history plays are "borrowed" from Holinshed's Chronicles; at times, they are repeated verbatim. Printing (and all of the other social and economic structures involved) made those classics available to Will Shakespeare or, as Eisenstein (1983) writes, it "helped to bridge earlier divisions between university lectures and artisan crafts" (p. 271). Although Kastan's arguments are well presented and his writing eloquent, perhaps Eisenstein and Kastan should get together and produce what I, upon picking up Shakespeare and the Book, had hoped it would deliver.

Kastan is speaking to an audience that is assumed to have more than a passing interest in Shakespeare. This is inferred from, among other things, the absence of explanatory notes for certain notations for folios, etc. However, obviously attempting to make his research "relevant" to a culture that is accustomed to being entertained, Kastan invokes references to the popular (and yet acclaimed) film Shakespeare in Love and employs witty pop-culture/sexual puns that subtitle his chapters (e.g., "From quarto to folio; or, size matters"; "From contemporary to classic; or, textual healing"). Kastan is obviously dedicated to ensuring the continued importance of Shakespeare. While he takes pains to argue his case without wearing out his "Dedicated to Shakespeare" hat, his apparent passion intensifies his argument. In his acknowledgments, Kastan pays homage to David Trotter's "extraordinary sensitivity both to the words on the page and the intellectual and institutional conditions necessary for them to be there" (p. xi). This could also be said of Kastan's endeavour here.


Eisenstein, Elizabeth. (1983). The printing revolution in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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