The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0087  Friday, 26 February 2010


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

Date:         February 24, 2010 8:34:07 PM EST

Subject: 21.0079  Staying Entries

Comment:      Re: SHK 21.0079  Staying Entries


I have to say that Justin Alexander clearly has a penchant for the Straw Man argument! I clearly wrote (and he quotes) "But Shakespeare wasn't interested in his plays as literature". In case anyone else hasn't noticed, the operative words are "as literature". Alexander chooses to interpret this as "Shakespeare ... must have cared more about the poetry". The point I am making (and which he is pretending not to see) is that Shakespeare regarded poetry (and especially his narrative poems) as Literature (with a capital L), and that he did not regard his plays as Literature.


Of course, Shakespeare was passionate about his plays: he spent most of his working life writing them! But he took no interest in publishing them. He was an actor: he regarded performance as more important. We may disagree -- there may have been a significant number of theatre fans who also disagreed (they certainly purchased playtexts in significant numbers), but they seem to have been somewhat indiscriminate in their tastes, for they cheerfully purchased 'bad' texts as well as 'good' ones.


But did they regard them as literature? Do those of us who purchase published screenplays regard them as literature? Are television scripts different from film scripts? Are movies art, and television programmes not? Do screenwriters regard their work as literature? What about 'novelisations'? Did Douglas Adams regard his Hitchhiker novels as literature in a way that the radio scripts were not? These questions are not clear in our own day, so how much more confusing must it have been in Shakespeare's day? 


Some things are clear: Ben Jonson regarded his plays as literature, and published them with his "Works" -- he was mocked for his pains. (It is unclear whether Shakespeare lived to see the publication of Jonson's Works. I like to think that Ben took Will a specially-bound copy as a birthday present, and they drank too much in celebrating...)


Of course, Jonson carefully edited his plays for publication (removing his collaborators' contributions in the process -- just as Douglas Adams did in his novelisations.) As a result, there is scant employment in the Jonson Industry -- whereas thousands are employed (and have been for hundreds of years) just on the textual aspects of Shakespeare's plays! In the circumstances, it is risible for Alexander to claim that "relatively high quality quarto editions of many of Shakespeare's plays [...] appeared throughout his lifetime". "Relatively" is a fine weasel word! The printing quality varied from reasonably tolerable to execrable. The main problem being, of course, the state of the printer's copy -- but the printers were not particularly careful.


It is disingenuous of Alexander to dismiss the qualitative difference of the narrative poems with "what appear to be relatively high quality quarto editions of V&A and Lucrece were published", and to claim "there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Shakespeare actually did take an interest in publishing his poetry". Of course Shakespeare wrote his own dedications to Southampton, and wrote them specially for the printed publication: the convention was that patrons rewarded the author with a suitable monetary gift (or so the author hoped!) upon publication.


That Richard Field was a native of Stratford may or may not be relevant: it is certainly relevant that he was a specialist printer of poetry, and produced high-quality "literary" editions. He may have taken on the publication of "Venus and Adonis" as a favour to Shakespeare (but if it was a gamble then it was richly rewarded) -- or Shakespeare may have underwritten the publication himself.


There is no mystery about the transfer of the publication right to John Harrison: Field was principally a printer, whereas Harrison was a wholesale bookseller who had held the stock of "Venus and Adonis" -- and Field then printed "Lucrece" for Harrison. There was no question this time of anyone needing to underwrite the publication. The role of publisher clearly sat more comfortably with the bookseller than with the printer.


That Shakespeare chose not to publish further volumes of poetry, and dedicate them to Southampton, probably has more to do with the relative rewards of writing for the theatre (particularly if you are a shareholder in both the theatre and the playing company), against writing poems to dedicate to impecunious noblemen.


John Briggs




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