Shakespeare’s passing was an entirely local event…
Much Ado About Nothing, Lionsgate, 2012
It was not until seven years after his death that Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies were gathered together by his friends John Heminges and Henry Condell in an expensive edition, dedicated to William Herbert and his brother, that first laid claim to their status as high culture. And it was only then, in his commendatory poem to the volume, that Ben Jonson for the first time evoked a larger landscape in which to understand the significance of Shakespeare’s career, one that would make it appropriate for a nobleman to acknowledge a connection to a middle-class writer of popular plays. “And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,” Jonson wrote, “I would not seek/For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,/Euripides, and Sophocles to us.” These immortals could worthily bear witness to the greatness of Shakespeare as a tragic playwright; as for his comedies, Jonson added, these surpass everything “that insolent Greece or haughty Rome/sent forth.”
Jonson made Shakespeare into a global artist. Not in the sense that he imagined his work was or would ever become famous outside of England, but that he insisted it could bear comparison with the best that the world of letters had ever brought forth. Even if nothing in Shakespeare’s personal circumstances—his birthplace, parentage, education, affiliations, and the like—bore recording, he was nonetheless a national treasure. “Triumph, my Britain,” Jonson proclaimed, “thou hast one to show,/To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.” To this proud boast he added the famous line: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
The enduring and global success of Shakespeare’s work is due in part to his willingness to let go of it, a willingness perhaps conveyed by titles like As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, What You Will (the subtitle of Twelfth Night), and All’s Well That Ends Well. It is as if he were refusing to insist upon his own identity and proprietary claim. It goes without saying that Shakespeare was a genius who left his mark on everything he touched. But there is also a strange sense that his characters and plots seized upon him as much as he seized upon them.
Even at this distance in time, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary playwrights, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, both seem directly and personally present in their work in a way that Shakespeare does not.