Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Hundred Documents

I am a big fan of Bill Bryson’s writings. I love how he writes, what he writes about, and his wit and often-uncanny insight into the workings of the world. My daughter gave me Bryson’s new book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2007), and I was surprised how much of his brief biography concerned records and archives.

Bryson makes the theme of his book the matter of how little documentation there is about Shakespeare. Consider some of his assessments:

“After four hundred years of dedicated hunting, researchers have found about a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family. . . “ (p. 7).

“Although he left nearly a million words of text, we have just fourteen words in his own hand. . . “ (p. 8).

Bryson provides various descriptions of surviving documents, accounts of interviews with archivists about the records, tales of discovering and losing documents, and the process of analyzing documents alleged to be by Shakespeare or to have connections with him.

Bryson asserts that the idea for his book is “to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record,” indicating that this is why his book is “so slender” (p. 21). So, archivists and those interested in archives will have a lot of fun reading this book, especially as he sets up the reader to have expectations about possible future discoveries of documents about Shakespeare.


At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some months ago there was an article in the Chronicle entitled “Hamlet.doc? Literature in a Digital Age,” which imagined what it would be like if we had access to writers hard drives.

This reminded me of Jorge Luis Borge’s lecture “The Enigma of Shakespeare.” Borges said that Shakespeare’s contemporaries “did not seem to have had him much in view.” He was not an epic poet, a great “author”; he wrote, for the most part, plays. Not only was his work for the stage, but it belonged to the acting company for which it was written. As de Quincey explained, for Shakespeare “publication was not the printed word. Shakespeare did not write to be read, but to be performed.” Thus Shakespeare retired to his native village, literally leaving his work behind him, Elizabethan equivalent of the hard drive and all. His work had been for the moment, not posterity. “History,” says Borges, “did not exist for him.” In the end, the document that mattered most for him was Will’s will.


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