All entries for Wednesday 12 November 2008

November 12, 2008

Words of Wisdom

Since reading Margreta de Grazia's article in Appropriations of Shakespeare entitled "Shakespeare in Quotation Marks" (1991, ed. Jean I. Marsden), I've been having some interesting thoughts about the canon and what the implications are of adding to or taking away from it.

de Grazia's article discusses the phenomenon of the Shakespeare 'quotation book', the publication that takes quotes from Shakespeare out of context and reproduces them as stand-alone sententiae. Within these books, the quotes are generally decontextualised, presented as statements and often grouped thematically (so, for example, you can go to a single page and see all of Shakespeare's important comments on love).

What this does, effectively, is present these quotes as the personal wisdom and viewpoints of Shakespeare the man. The importance of this can't be over-stressed; these books purport to offer a direct insight into Shakespeare's mind. Thus, Polonius' advice to his son becomes Shakespeare's own advice as a father; Romeo's declarations of Juliet's beauty become Shakespeare's own outpourings of love for an unknown other; King Harry's encouragement of his troops becomes Shakespeare inciting his countrymen to war. This idea is confirmed in the titles of these books published as late as the early 20th century, e.g. The Wisdom of Shakespeare (1909).

In terms of questioning the canon, this strain of Bardolatrous culture is very important. Effectively, if you change the works from which Shakespeare's 'mind' has been constructed, then you change that mind. If, say, Locrine features a different stance or take on war, suddenly in this context one has to question Shakespeare's own views on war. It strikes me that, consciously or unconsciously, this is an important part of the resistance, particularly in the 19th century, to the attribution of new works to Shakespeare; the man himself was held in such high esteem that the idea of changing him, of crediting to him works that were less decorous or voiced unpolitic sentiments, was unthinkable.

While we've obviously moved on, quotation books are still with us and we still act against the weight of a received Shakespeare who has 'opinions' which have been derived from his texts. This could be a productive line of inquiry.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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