Shakespeare’s 450th birthday: Look at his library, get a read on him

A calf-bound 1623 copy of the First Folio edition of William Shakespeare's plays. Wednesday marks the playwright's 450th birthday.
(Matt Dunham / Associated Press)
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If you’re looking for a way to commemorate William Shakespeare’s birthday — he was born 450 years ago today, on April 23, 1564 — the most interesting party may take place at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in West Adams. From 4-7 Wednesday evening, the library will celebrate not Shakespeare’s writing so much as his reading, with an event called “Shakespeare’s Bookshelf.”

This is compelling for a variety of reasons, not least that Shakespeare was a voracious reader, said (in much the same way as John Milton) to have read every book available at the time he lived. His work is steeped in (let’s call it) the lineage of literature, drawing on mythology, history, folklore — in other words, the vernacular of narrative.

The Clark Library has substantial Shakespeare holdings: 14 folios, among other things. But the centerpiece of “Shakespeare’s Bookshelf” is the Paul Chrzanowski Collection, which includes 80 rare books and manuscripts that “are believed to have influenced the playwright.”


These include works by Boccaccio, Chaucer and Plutarch, as well as Shakespearean contemporaries such as Spencer, Marlowe and Sydney, in editions largely from the 16th and 17th centuries; the oldest dates from 1479. In that sense, the collection offers a glimpse at the underpinnings, the foundations, of Shakespeare’s own work, the tradition into which he imagined himself.

A similar logic motivates “Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays (NYRB Classics: 418 pp., $17.95 paper), edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G. Platt. Montaigne, of course, was the progenitor of the essay (or essai, in his coinage, French for try, or attempt), and as Greenblatt illustrates in a deft introduction, he was an influence on Shakespeare’s writings, particularly “The Tempest.”

Although Shakespeare was not unfamiliar with French culture, the Montaigne he read, Greenblatt notes, was the 1603 translation by John Florio. The selections in “Shakespeare’s Montaigne,” then, “in their rich Elizabethan idiom and wildly inventive turns of phrase, constitute the way Montaigne spoke to Renaissance England.”

Why is that important? Most particularly, it showcases the relationship of writing to reading, the fact that writers are (or should be) reading all the time. “A writer,” in Saul Bellow’s famous formulation, “is a reader moved to emulation,” and this was as true of Shakespeare as it was of anyone.

By understanding what he was reading, we get a better sense of his place in the trajectory, the conversation, the ongoing dialogue in which we all participate to this day. That is Shakespeare’s true legacy, his sense of engagement, which is why, on his 450th birthday, his work remains so relevant, attuned as it is to the most essential human concerns.



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