All entries for Friday 30 July 2010

July 30, 2010

The early modern Shakespeare fan

As an experiment, imagine that Shakespeare had at least one really committed literary fan in his lifetime. This fan (similar to the modern record collector) wants to gather together everything that's been published in his idol's name, to put together his own "complete works" on the available evidence. What does it look like? Here's the library he would end up with:

  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598)
  • Richard II (1598)
  • Richard III (1598)
  • 1 Henry IV (1599)
  • The Passionate Pilgrim (1599)
  • 2 Henry IV (1600)
  • The Merchant of Venice (1600)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600)
  • Much Ado about Nothing (1600)
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602)
  • Hamlet (1603)
  • The London Prodigal (1605)
  • King Lear (1608)
  • A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608)
  • Pericles (1609)
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609)
  • Troilus and Cressida (1609)

If he was particularly geeky, he would also have picked up:

  • Locrine (1595, attributed to W.S.)
  • Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602, attributed to W.S.)
  • The Puritan (1607, attributed to W.S.)
  • The Troublesome Reign of King John (1611, attributed to W.Sh.)

He would almost certainly also own Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, confirming the popular rumours about their authorship when he found Shakespeare's name attached to their dedicatory addresses. Doubtless, he would also have picked up later quartos of some of the plays.

This is obviously a very different Complete Works, and while it's most unlikely that any reader would have pursued Shakespeare's name in print with this kind of fervour, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate how varied Shakespeare's literary presence was in his own lifetime. I'm always surprised, reading back down that list, to be reminded that even Henry V wasn't attributed to Shakespeare on bookshelves, nor the ever-popuar Romeo and Juliet. Yet, of course, everyone knew that these were Shakespeare's. Francis Meres's list alone shows that several plays not even printed, let alone attributed to Shakespeare in print, were known to be his, including Titus, Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen.

This is illustrative of a wider question: how much importance should we place on title pages and printed attributions? In a heavily social culture, where did people get their information from? This is a significant question. It's a standard academic argument that playgoers would have not known - or perhaps even cared - who the dramatist of the play they were attending was, an argument based on e.g. the lack of authors on title pages in the 1580s and 90s, and the possibility that these title pages reflect advertising material for the plays. I can't help but wonder, though, based on the allusions in Meres, the Parnassus plays and so on - is part of the reason for the lack of printed attributions that everyone knew who wrote them anyway? That it was too obvious and mundane a piece of information to include? Or, more to the point, would the writer's name be advertised differently, or a topic of casual conversation? Obviously, as the professional theatre developed and more writers emerge, there's a growing kudos attached to authorial attributions, and dramatists become literary authors. But this doesn't mean that the authors were unknown and unnoticed earlier in the period; the various testimonies we have are evidence of that.

This is why, in the section of my chapter from which this list is drawn, I'm careful to articulate that this is Shakespeare's literary presence, his presence on bookshelves. That is distinct, in my mind, from his public presence, from what people knew he had written. One can't quantify what that public presence may have been, but I'm inclined to believe that it was much more significant than narratives focussing on merely his printed appearances, or biographical narratives suggesting he was a recluse, imply.


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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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