Shakespeare's Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature

Counterpoint. Apr. 2019. 336p. index. ISBN 9781640091832. $26. LIT
William Shakespeare's works draw on hundreds of writers, from the classics to his contemporaries. According to Kells (Penguin and the Lane Brothers, The Library), the Bard's Stratford house, New Place, had a study with books in the 1630s. Yet none of Shakespeare's personal volumes have ever been found, and only three pages of his actual manuscripts. Kells's account of the search for Shakespeare's library leads through many fascinating bypaths of book history. He recounts the forgeries of William-Henry Ireland, who "discovered" new manuscript versions of "Hamblette" and the "Tragedye of Kynge Leare" and even an entirely new play, Vortigern. Kells discusses some of the well-known bibliophiles of the early 19th century, among them John Ker, third Duke of Roxburghe; George John, second Earl Spencer; and more obscure figures, such as the clergyman Francis Wrangham, as well as Shakespeare scholars George Steevens and John Payne Collier (also a forger). While no one has yet found Shakespeare's library, Kells hopes new leads may yet surface. The work takes an unfortunate detour into the Cloud Cuckoo Land of the authorship question, claiming Ben Jonson and John Florio greatly improved Shakespeare's mediocre plays.
VERDICT Still, an enjoyable excursion into Shakespearean (and non-Shakespearean) booklore.

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