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The Great William

Writers Reading Shakespeare

The Great William is the first book to explore how seven renowned writers—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Charles Olson, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and Ted Hughes—wrestled with Shakespeare in the very moments when they were reading his work. What emerges is a constellation of remarkable intellectual and emotional encounters.

Theodore Leinwand builds impressively detailed accounts of these writers’ experiences through their marginalia, lectures, letters, journals, and reading notes. We learn why Woolf associated reading Shakespeare with her brother Thoby, and what Ginsberg meant when referring to the mouth feel of Shakespeare’s verse. From Hughes’s attempts to find a “skeleton key” to all of Shakespeare’s plays to Berryman’s tormented efforts to edit King Lear, Leinwand reveals the palpable energy and conviction with which these seven writers engaged with Shakespeare, their moments of utter self-confidence and profound vexation. In uncovering these intense public and private reactions, The Great William connects major writers’ hitherto unremarked scenes of reading Shakespeare with our own.

240 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature


“Intelligent and insightful. . . . The Great William is an important book and it feels like a landmark not just in terms of Shakespeare criticism but also in terms of how we think about writers reading writers. Theodore Leinwand is an astute and unfailingly courteous guide to the sub­ject. He is also often a brilliant critic, undoubtedly inspired by all the careful reading he has under­taken. . . . His prose is imaginative and enjoyable, packed with insights, as befits a critic who is acutely aware of the close links between critical and creative writing.”

PN Review

"Leinwand’s close readings are intense and insightful. . . .  The result is a smart, readable book. . . . Highly recommended." 


"A powerful and subtle investigation of seven 'writers reading Shakespeare'....Leinwand turns up a remarkable number of connections between his chosen writers, who include Coleridge, Keats, and Virginia Woolf; all of them engage adventurously with the lively immediacy of Shakespeare's writing."

Times Literary Supplement

"Leinwand captures the intellectual and spiritual urgency with which these writers read Shakespeare, but he also shows that their reading was a profoundly embodied experience."

SEL: Studies in English Literature

As a story of readings, The Great William is a true browser's paradise. The author is not only a sympathetic reader of others reading Shakespeare but is himself also a vigorously sympathetic reader of the bard and the hold his words continue to possess. . .this constantly inventive book deserves a long, rich, active shelf life."

Modern Philolgy

"Leinwand's attention. . .an attention that is intimate, subtle, mercurial, and scrupulously scholarly--gives a quickened texture to this fascinating, moving book."

Shakespeare Quarterly

“Leinwand’s book is first-rate, a pleasure to read, and one of the smartest and most engaging studies to have crossed my desk in a very long time. It is also rich in archival discoveries, steeped in biographical insight, and deeply knowledgeable about the ways in which great writers have read and responded to Shakespeare. I learned a great deal from every chapter and can’t imagine a reader who wouldn’t.”

James Shapiro, Columbia University

“What an illuminating book! With great acuity, scrupulous research, and learned determination, Leinwand studies and describes how some of our most notable writers contend with Shakespeare, urgently probing his work, catalyzing their own. The Great William teaches us a great deal about Shakespeare, about seven master literary eccentrics, and about ourselves as readers.”

Edward Hirsch, author of A Poet’s Glossary

“Leinwand has written not a study of influence, as we’ve come to understand the word, but a study of the actual mechanisms of inspiration—an account of how the highest verbal artistry nurses the future of art, preventing nothing. What’s more, he has done so without reliance on any sentimental notion of what constitutes Shakespeare’s inimitable greatness. Meticulously researched, seductively narrated, The Great William is a book about (in Proust’s phrase) the ‘original psychological act of reading.’”

James Longenbach, University of Rochester

The Great William—which at one point imagines Shakespeare as a gigantic walking ear taking in all the words of his world—shows us the strange, often wild life that the playwright’s own words lived in the ears and minds of seven uncommon readers. Leinwand catches beautifully the distinct colors of voice, and the distinctly Shakespearean touch, in each of his authors. One comes away from this probing, continually surprising study with a more urgent sense of how any of us engage with Shakespeare’s texts, conversing with them in the margins and in our memories.”

Kenneth Gross, author of Shylock Is Shakespeare

Table of Contents


Chapter I Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Impelling Thoughts” about Shakespeare
Chapter II John Keats on Sitting Down to Read Shakespeare Once Again
Chapter III Virginia Woolf Reads “the Great William”
Chapter IV Charles Olson’s “Objectist Shakespeare”
Chapter V John Berryman’s Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s John Berryman
Chapter VI Allen Ginsberg on Shakespeare’s Funny Mouthings
Chapter VII Ted Hughes Reads the Complete Shakespeare



Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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