The subtitle of this work is "The unlikely afterlife that turned a provincial playwright into the bard," which sounds a lot more purposeful and linear than the book turns out to be. In truth it is nothing more of a mildly interesting overview done in an entertaining but definitely non-scholarly style for the curious Shakespeare beginner. The events and characters recounted are related to Shakespeare, Shakespearean theatre or the texts, at least tangentially, but it is not the analytical or historically cogent argument you might imagine by reading the book's promotional material on the dust jacket or by believing the promise implicit in that sub-title.
The tone is quite elementary, aimed at the lay reader who probably has not read even a general history of seventeenth or eighteenth century Britain, but may have some vague notions about the events of the nineteenth century. If you have read Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives you have gone beyond the scope of this book (and have gained a wider body of knowledge on most of the same topics offered here). The stated purpose of this book is to act as "...a kind of biography that begins with Shakespeare's death and runs to his three hundredth birthday, focusing especially on what happened between about 1660 and 1830." The intended audience is "...those who have never thought about what happened after the death of the immortal Bard" (p. 8). If you are among this audience, you will find the book worthwhile and entertaining. If your purposes are more serious, however, or if you are looking for careful analytical historical narrative building on a thesis about Shakespeare's reputation, you will be disappointed.
The Restoration stage and its two authorized companies occupies the early story. Killigrew and his star actors are given rather short shrift in favor of Davenant, whose more compelling (hinted) provenance always makes him a favorite. Then the seventeenth century Shakespeare revisions, particularly those of Tate and Cibber take over the narrative. Entertaining anecdotes abound. Especially featured is one on the inimitable Nell Gwyn which has just about nothing to do with Shakespeare but adds entertainment value to the book. Rather a lot of space is devoted to Garrick, which is proper in a book purporting to describe the growth of Shakepseare's reputation, but nearly nothing is said about Garrick's collection of Shakespeare texts which are undoubtedly his greatest contribution to modern scholarship and the textual tradition.
The great old actors each get their paragraphs: Mrs. Siddons, the Kembles, Perdita Robinson, Dorothy Jordan, Edmund Kean. The material presented, however, is just a bare introduction. You will know the names, and a few of their notable roles and, of course, remarkable foibles--anything gossip-worthy--but not a great deal more about the state or growth of Shakespearean acting after reading this book.
From actors the author takes on a brief introduction to the texts and their editors, giving them similar treatment. We get a whirlwind tour of textual editing through the eighteenth century: Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, Johnson. Lynch is a Johnson expert, so we would expect a rather thorough treatment of the great Doctor's engagement with Shakespeare, but it does not materialize. His treatment remains superficial and light. There is barely a mention of Steevens and Reed, and not much more of Malone (though Malone gets a little more coverage in connection with the Ireland forgeries, but not for his groundbreaking scholarship in dating the texts, renovating certain quarto readings, and promoting interest particularly in the poetry after it had been savaged by by Steevens). We get from this "afterlife" very little penetrating detail. Think of it more of an "overview" of points of interest generally related to Shakespeare, rather than a "history" or "intellectual biography."
Which is not to say it is not done well. It is just a bit disappointing after the buildup of the publicity blurbs on the book cover and promises of the book's introduction. The book is only remarkable for its odd revolt against its basic style when very much too much attention is paid to Nahum Tate's revision of Lear. One would almost think that a knowledge of Tate's treatment actually had much at all to do with today's understanding of Shakespeare, though it can be said to have a bit to do with his reputation, and more to do with late seventeenth and early eighteenth century tastes in general. One suspects it is material the author had lying about and sensed a perfect opportunity to use it.
The chapters lurch from not necessarily closely related topics, touching on the best known anecdotes about ancillary Shakespearean associates. We learn a bit about Bowdler's Family Shakespeare--though not a word about the first revolutionary edition of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, Singer's edition. The book also glances forward as far as Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, but in a minor way, and no mention at all is made of the revolution in textual studies in the early twentieth century that has done so much to stoke today's Shakespeare industry. Though Kott gets mentioned--and one is not sure why--the names of Greg, McKerrow, Pollard, J. D. Wilson, E. K. Chambers, even Sindney Lee are not. Perhaps they were regarded as "out of range," but if so, why Kott?
Far too much space is dedicated to the insipid Ireland forgeries, which cannot really be said to have done much for Shakespeare's reputation. Ditto to the Collier forgeries. The chapter on forging Shakespeare seems to have been included simply because of its inherent interest in the idea of literary forgery, because a connection between the forgeries and the growth in appreciation of Shakespeare is never established except in the most tenuous way. The chapter is more a commentary on human foibles, credulity and the deep seated needs of forgers than on Shakespeare.
Mention is made, quite properly, of Garrick's Jubilee celebration and the provenance of Stratford as a tourist center. Very little is made of the Tercentenary, unfortunately, where original work is wanted. The book is simply too superficial, which is unfortunate from the more experienced reader's perspective. It would provide a good introduction to any of these topics for one who hasn't one, but as I have said above, reading Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives would be better.
The book is presented without notes or any sort of critical apparatus, clearly aimed at the general reader, but does contain a helpful narrative "for further reading" section that the new student will find useful.