Shakespeare is the pinnacle of English literature and theatre; his works carry a legacy larger than life. So how can it be that so little remains from Shakespeare himself? As the “Shakespeare Unauthorized” exhibit expressed today, people know very little about his earliest manuscripts. He collaborated with other playwrights and only had his name published on his works beginning in 1598; thus, it is difficult to discern which components in his plays are directly attributable to him. Further, several upcoming dramatists plagiarized him, publishing personal works under the great bard’s name and consequently calling into question the authenticity of works “by Shakespeare.” Even from a straightforward historical perspective, the limited number of copies makes his original work somewhat untraceable, for the paper is physically nonexistent now.
I kept thinking then: how can someone in many ways forgotten, someone whose true work has literally turned to dust become the impossibly fantastic icon he is today? I believe it is appropriation. In actuality, people have been changing and adapting Shakespeare since his first publications. Directors and actors often edited the original scripts, critiquing dialogues and staging, even fully adding and excluding scenes to create the major works we have today. Moreover, this trend in modification is what continues now.
Without doubt, Shakespeare pioneered writing by introducing new themes, vocabulary, and storylines, among other things. Nevertheless, I believe that his popularity and inconceivable fame strongly arise from people’s continued efforts to understand and represent the enigma he portrays. There are no “original” Shakespeare pieces; those are lost to history. Thus, the originality represents the first moments when people appropriated plays, when people first started to inscribe what “we mean by Shakespeare.” He marks the turning point in art history when people recognized their freedom to interpret and create realities through writing. Although the world will never know what Shakespeare himself intended, part of the fun lies in the possibility that the plays we write today could get him right.