‘Shakespeare’s Library’ imagines the Bard’s bookshelves

Stuart Kells explores the source materials that would have been necessary to write all those plays and poems.

‘Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature’ by Stuart Kells, Counterpoint Press, 336 pp.

The previous book from Stuart Kells, 2018’s “The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders,” celebrated the joy of libraries, taking readers on a broad tour of the history and variety of this particularly wonderful institution. In his fascinating new book, Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature, Kells narrows his focus from all the libraries in the world to one library in particular. It’s perhaps the most important library that nobody’s ever seen: the personal library of William Shakespeare.

The Bard of Avon wrote at least 37 plays, four long poems, and 154 sonnets. His works exist in innumerable editions in virtually every language in the world (and beyond; “Hamlet” at least has been translated into Klingon). He is widely considered the greatest writer who ever put pen to paper, and his works bristle with literary borrowings, echoings, and allusions. The plays and poems draw heavily on Chaucer, Boccaccio, Plutarch, Ovid, Plautus, Montaigne, Cervantes, and many other writers, including some whose works had not been translated into English in Shakespeare’s day. The plays are full of specific references to medicine, law, music, seafaring, and half a dozen places far from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. In other words, these writings weren’t rattled off; they were the product of literary research. They were the product of a library.

And yet, famously, there is no such library. There is no contemporary reference to such a library. No mention of a library (or books, or manuscripts, or writing furniture, or copyrights) in Shakespeare’s will. No evidence exists that he ever owned a book. This is the mystery at the heart of “Shakespeare’s Library.”

“If Shakespeare had a library, we can readily visualise its contents,” Kells writes. “Apart from working drafts, along with manuscripts and copies of his principal literary and historical sources, he probably owned reference works: writing guides, dictionaries and foreign-language instruction manuals.” This is all certainly true, and there is of course a deeper reason why the search is important: if the author of all those plays and poems absolutely required such a library and Shakespeare didn’t have one, Shakespeare couldn’t have written the works that bear his name. Inevitably, Kells’ book is about the Shakespeare authorship controversy.

This is well-covered ground, naturally, and Kells addresses some of it in this new book, focusing in particular on Elizabethan courtier and diplomat Henry Neville as a likely alternate candidate. Kells gamely investigates the case for and against Neville and a handful of other possible authors of the Shakespeare canon. The main body of the book is every bit as invigorating as “The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders.”

Then, a quick change: “If there is a Shakespeare library waiting to be found, the next step is to go looking for it,” Kells writes. “But where to look? What happened to Shakespeare’s books after his death?”

Suddenly Shakespeare had books, and the question is what happened to them. Kells started out by asking the question of whether or not Shakespeare of Stratford ever actually possessed the extensive private library he would have needed in order to write his works. Then he quickly and subtly shifts to asking questions about that library, skipping over the middle step of establishing that it ever  existed.

“Shakespeare’s extensive use of sources helps solve much that is mysterious about his life and work,” Kells writes, bafflingly certain on the point. “Collaboration and voracious borrowing explain the breadth of his writing and the depth of his erudition.” According to Kells’ reckoning, Shakespeare’s library would have included “marked-up copies of earlier versions of his own plays ... scrawled-on copies of Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet, Robert Greene’s Pandosto and other prior plays and novels – an evidentiary trail of Shakespeare’s filching plot points, vocabulary, characters, settings.” All true, but as Kells makes clear, there’s no evidence for this evidentiary trail.

“Shakespeare certainly did have books, and he certainly read them,” Kells flatly contends, but his own book demonstrates no such thing and indeed assembles quite a bit of equally solid conjecture against the idea. If Shakespeare had books, where did they go? Why weren’t they bequeathed to his relatives? Why were they not mentioned by his erstwhile colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who published the First Folio in 1623? Why has no trace of that library surfaced in 500 years of diligent searching?

“The further we take such talk, the further we stray into speculation, anachronism, and the biographical fallacy in yet another guise,” Kells writes. He characterizes Shakespeare as a pragmatic, unsentimental craftsman, a workhorse, a collaborator, and a doctor of the work of others, someone who wouldn’t have cared to save or safeguard his books. But we have no evidence as to Shakespeare’s processes, as Kells knows.

The subtitle of Kells’ book is “Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature.” The book itself is wonderful reading, but that mystery remains firmly locked away.

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