The day has arisen, when this Shakspeare will visit you; in your verdant homes he will soon be with you. In the meantime, seek him in the nearest library, he will not mock your poverty; if you cannot afford him in a morocco case, he will not despise a paper cover. Yes, I have faith, that in a few more years, the spread of Education and Science will break down the barriers that Bigotry, Prejudice, and Conventionalism have been studiously building up in years past, and patching, again and again, as the breezes of knowledge have weakened them. They are now going down with a fell crash; Progression examined them, and pronounced them rotten . . . For such an age was Shakspeare specially ordained. Try him; you will find him
ONE ENTIRE AND PERFECT CHRYSOLITE
So Christopher Thomson writes in his Autobiography of an Artisan, published in 1847. Thomson was born in the dying days of the eighteenth century, on Christmas day, 1799. Over the course of the new century, Shakespeare’s appeal would broaden considerably to take in a new, popular readership, and Thomson brings together here some of the key elements which contributed to this development. During the course of the century, the educational franchise expanded, carrying literacy downwards into the poorest sectors of society and creating new generations of readers. At the same time, books became ever cheaper and more plentiful, so that this emergent class of readers could in time afford to become book buyers. Many of these readers found their way to Shakespeare and they were able, as Thomson suggests, to buy the playwright’s works in cheap paper covered editions, even if they could not afford them in elegant leather bindings. For the first time, then, Shakespeare began to have a significant working-class readership – even among those whom Thomson styles the ‘factory-workers, whose right to earn a scanty supply in ten short hours, in [a] miasmatic atmosphere, is questioned by brassy capitalists’.
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