April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The world will celebrate him as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. But his lasting fame wasn’t inevitable. It almost did not happen.
He was born in 1564 and died in 1616 on his 52nd birthday. A celebrated writer and actor who had performed for Queen Elizabeth and King James, he wrote approximately 39 plays and composed five long poems and 154 sonnets. By the time of his death, he had retired and was considered past his prime.
By the 1620s, his plays were no longer being performed in theaters. On the day he died, no one — not even Shakespeare himself — believed that his works would last, that he was a genius or that future generations would hail his writings.
He hadn’t even published his plays — during his lifetime they were considered ephemeral amusements, not serious literature. Half of them had never been published in any form and the rest had appeared only in unauthorized, pirated versions that corrupted his original language.
Enter John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends, fellow actors and shareholders in the King’s Men theatrical company. In his will he left them money to buy gold memorial rings to remember him. By about 1620, they conceived a better way to honor him — one that would make them the two most unsung heroes in the history of English literature. They would do what Shakespeare had never done for himself — publish a complete, definitive collection of his plays.
Labels: literature, Shakespeare