The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0079  Tuesday, 23 February 2010


From:         Justin Alexander <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         February 18, 2010 7:15:45 PM EST

Subject: 21.0070  Staying Entries

Comment:      Re: SHK 21.0070  Staying Entries


John Briggs wrote:


But Shakespeare wasn't interested in his plays as literature: poetry was the thing for him.


If it was, then I suppose that we must conclude that Shakespeare didn't care much about literature at all.


We have roughly 100,000 lines in his plays as opposed to around 6,000 lines of poetry (depending on how much of The Passionate Pilgrim we want to assign him). That seems like a ridiculously lop-sided production if his real interest lay in his poetry.


The dates of composition only serve to make Shakespeare's interest in non-dramatic literature more questionable: The theaters close in 1592 and he writes roughly 3,000 lines of published poetry over the next two years. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that every other published poem by Shakespeare was written after 1594 and before 1609 (when the Sonnets were published). That means he went from writing 1,500 lines of poetry per year when he probably wasn't able to make a living from playwrighting to writing just 100 lines of poetry per year once he could. (Assuming, of course, that this later composition wasn't also taking place during plague-enforced theatrical interludes.)


One might argue that Shakespeare may have been writing lots of poetry that was never published. But since the entire argument seems to be "Shakespeare took an interest in publishing his poetry and not his plays, therefore he must have cared more about the poetry" the argument begins to look a little questionable if we assume that Shakespeare had a whole bunch of poetry laying around that he didn't bother to get published.


Of course, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Shakespeare actually did take an interest in publishing his poetry. Or, at least, no more evidence than that he took an interest in publishing his plays. It certainly seems "self-evident" that he must have been involved in the publication of Venus & Adonis and Lucrece, but is there actually any evidence of that? There's nothing in the dedications to Wriothesley to suggest that they were written specifically for publication. No paper trail to indicate that Shakespeare sold the manuscript. No evidence for authorial corrections or proof-reading at the printing house.


In this complete absence of evidence, one could weave any number of theories: Perhaps a scribe pirated the poems and then sold them off. Perhaps Southhampton asked for them to be published or arranged their publication himself. We could even proceed to elaborate upon these narratives: Why did Richard Field transfer the copyright for V&A to John Harrison (who also published Lucrece)? Well, Field was from Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps he was a friend of Shakespeare's. Shakespeare might have given him a copy of V&A for critique or just out of friendly interest, and was then enraged when Field decided to publish it! To make sure that the Lucrece would not be similarly pirated, he made arrangements with Harrison to publish it and demanded that Field transfer his copyright.


Or perhaps not.


But all these narratives only serve to distract from the complete lack of substantive information: All we know is that what appear to be relatively high quality quarto editions of V&A and Lucrece were published in 1593 and 1594, respectively.


If one is to draw from that singular fact the conclusion that "Shakespeare took an interest in publishing his poetry", then I am forced to wonder how one can look at the relatively high quality quarto editions of many of Shakespeare's plays that appeared throughout his lifetime and not reach the same conclusion. The existence of bad quartos can't suffice to explain the difference, since The Passionate Pilgrim would almost certainly be referred to as a bad quarto if it had been a play and not a poetry collection.


To be clear: I'm not suggesting that Shakespeare didn't care about his poetry. But I have yet to see anyone demonstrate it with evidence that doesn't equally apply to his plays.


Justin Alexander

American Shakespeare Repertory




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