When two actors, Henry Condell and John Heminges, started putting together a book of all their friend's plays, they could not have guessed where it would lead. But they did know publishing was an expensive and risky business if their labor of love wasn't going to end in financial disaster, it had to sell. By the time he died in 1616, William Shakespeare was already a popular playwright and well-known actor in England. So when Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies hit the shelves seven years later, the title page carried the author's name in big letters. Underneath it was a portrait that would have been familiar to anyone who had seen Will on stage the 17th century equivalent of putting Paul Newman's face on a bottle of salad dressing. Half of Shakespeare's plays had already appeared in print, and there were a few that Condell and Heminges either chose not to or couldn't include; but to assure readers that they were still buying something special, the price for the collection, known today as the First Folio, was set at a steep 20 shillings, the cost of over 100 loaves of bread. "The fate of all bookes depends upon your capacities, and not of your heads alone, but of your purses," the editors wrote in their introduction. "Whatever you do, buy."
Even back then, Shakespeare's value as an artist was tied to his worth at the till. Not that it was a hard sell; he was pretty handy with a quill. From Macbeth's tortured soul to Much Ado About Nothing's romantic antics, he had the uncanny ability to put into words what it means to be human. "More than any other writer, he can teach us enormously about ourselves," says American Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom. "He has this almost miraculous ability to keep inventing language, to think more deeply, and more capaciously, than any philosophical mind and to show us how far thinking can go."
But without that weighty tome published by his two friends, Shakespeare might never have gone from local boy made good to global literary icon. "If you believe that Shakespeare's words have survived because they were written by a great poet and playwright, you're wrong," says Gary Taylor, English scholar at Florida State University and co-editor of the Oxford University Press's authoritative edition of Shakespeare's complete works (see Viewpoint). "His words have survived because someone put them into pieces of type, set those into forms, pressed those inked forms into sheets of paper and sewed those sheets together in a particular order." And because someone else bought them.
That relationship between culture and cash has followed Shakespeare ever since. Now he's a trusted brand, the center of a global industry that reaches into everything from education to the economy and from the State to The Simpsons. When, in 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked if the failure to find Osama bin Laden made the U.S. look inept, he misquoted Hamlet: "Something's neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said." The Simpsons' manglings of the Bard have been deliberate "Much Apu About Nothing," in which the Kwik-E-Mart clerk faces deportation, and "Dial Z for Zombies," featuring a fight with the undead Bard. This year Shakespeare will be a major presence onstage Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (rsc) launches a yearlong festival of his work in April and on the screen, with the summer release of a Hollywood adaptation of As You Like It. Meanwhile, eminent scholar Jonathan Bate is putting together a new collection of the plays based purely on the First Folio, the book that started it all. When it comes to the Bard, supply is endless and demand is high.
Shakespeare never saw that kind of adoration while he was alive. Back then he was the pop-culture king, the Elizabethan James Cameron entertaining, yes, but you wouldn't really take him seriously. It was not until 100 years after he died that he started getting some respect. By the 18th century, Britain was established as a military power and wanted to show it had brains to go with the brawn. "There was a strong sense that if Britain was a great modern state, as Rome was in ancient times, it must have a canon of classic British literature, as the Romans had their Horace, Ovid and Virgil," says Bate. "As part of establishing high culture in Britain, Shakespeare became the national poet." Now, he's a symbol of artistry, intelligence and wisdom. His work is recommended reading for schoolkids all over the world. In 1988, Britain introduced a national curriculum that doesn't prescribe any specific author or text � except Shakespeare.