Anthologizing Shakespeare, 1593-1603
From 1599 onwards, Shakespeare’s works began to appear in printed anthologies. Over the following years, a number of volumes included passages from his poems and plays, presenting them alongside similar excerpts by his rivals and contemporaries. The practices of reading and commonplacing that lie behind these anthologies have been reconstructed by recent scholars. Less work has been done, though, on how authors responded to those practices—how they wrote for, or against, readers looking for material to extract. This thesis is an examination of how Shakespeare engaged with the culture of commonplacing in which his works were written, published, and received. It traces the first decade of his life in print, from 'Venus and Adonis' to 'Hamlet', to show how that culture shaped the formative works of his career. Shakespeare, I argue, was keenly attuned to this way of reading, and to the distinctive poetic and dramatic possibilities it opened up. By rereading his works through the passages these anthologies extract, we can get a better sense for those moments that solicit a reader’s desire to commonplace—or resist it—or move between the two.
The thesis falls into four chapters and an afterword. To introduce the series of printed anthologies on which I focus, the first chapter surveys the theory and practice of commonplacing, as they were articulated by humanist scholars, and applied in the early modern schoolroom. Those theories can be followed into Shakespeare’s 'Venus and Adonis', which—no less than the anthologies in which it later featured—was a product of the Elizabethan education system. I show how habits of commonplacing left their mark on the poem, colouring everything from its pedagogical interludes to the verse-form it takes. The second chapter turns from the poems to the plays, in order to explore the relationship between lyric and commonplace in 'Love’s Labour’s Lost'. Although these seem like entirely contrary ideas, this play demonstrates their paradoxical affinity. Its lovers struggle to prove that the feelings they express in verse are really their own; their poems fail to persuade their recipients, because—as commonplaces of Elizabethan sonneteering—they could have been spoken by anyone. So it is that they appeared in the 1599 'Passionate Pilgrim', extracted from the play, and presented as Shakespeare’s first sonnet-sequence. I use this anthology to consider the often tenuous connection between love and verse, along with related questions of authorship, criticism, and lyric theory. My third chapter is an experiment in using the evidence of these anthologies to reread Shakespeare’s works. At its centre is the question of why two 1600 volumes, 'Englands Parnassus' and 'Belvedere', gather so much material from a single scene in 'Richard II', the deathbed of John of Gaunt. Poised between this life and the next, dying words were (and are) often seen as proverbially true. That reputation for truthfulness, and their sense of otherworldly detachment, made them especially attractive to the anthologies that detached them. Shakespeare relishes the irony by which dying words are most likely to win an afterlife, and the consequent importance they win in what one critic calls Richard II’s ‘fight for the future perfect’.
The opening chapters set these anthologies in their social, historical, and literary context. I argue that they participated in the wider critical moment of 1590s drama, whose effects ranged from the common-placing of printed plays to the literary arguments staged in the Poets’ War. Though often overlooked in accounts of his life, this moment marked an important stage in Shakespeare’s career, as what James Bednarz has termed his ‘miscellany period’. In the fourth chapter, I consider the effects of this critical moment on 'Hamlet'. Amid the hostilities of the Poets’ War, Shakespeare took an extraordinary risk in revisiting a play written over a decade earlier. Back in 1589, Nashe had derided those playwrights who plundered Seneca’s tragedies for ‘manie good sentences’, and ‘whole Hamlets, I should say handfulls of tragical speaches’. Unsurprisingly, then, Shakespeare’s play is preoccupied with sentences, and sententiousness, as a legacy of its theatrical past. But sententiousness had a more respectable lineage too. In the 'Poetics', Aristotle had defined dianoia—translated into Latin as sententia—as an essential part of tragedy, denoting the thought performed in plays. My chapter tracks this idea as it made its way into English drama, following it through Seneca, and his imitators, to the experiments of the children’s companies. Shakespeare used sententiousness to explore his relations with a longer tragic tradition, and to examine his own play’s relative agedness. But he used it, too, to address the problem of how to show thinking onstage, working through and against tragic sententiousness to fashion his most thoughtful protagonist. Finally, this thesis’s findings are recapitulated in an afterword, which concludes with some thoughts on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the afterlife they imagine for their poet and his love.