The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.159  Monday, 31 March 2014


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

Date:         March 28, 2014 at 7:51:31 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: Lukas Erne’s Book Trade


I won’t attempt to defend Lukas Erne’s words against Gerald Downs here. But I will answer Gerald in my own words.


While Shakespeare quite possibly, even certainly, was not “complicit” in publication of his plays, I think Gerald would agree that he must have been quite cognizant of it. His works were being published. They were being purchased in considerable numbers, read, quoted, and commented upon by: 


1. Shakespeare’s very best customers—the six-penny (+) denizens of the galleries and gentleman’s room, and (later) the stage seats at Blackfriar's. 


2. Significantly—given Shakespeare’s positioning as actor, playwright, and company and theater sharer amidst the whole poetomachia business—by his competitor and compatriot playwrights, and other sniping and snippeting literati.


3. By arguably his most prized audience, Elizabeth and James’ courtiers.


These were also the most educated, attentive, and perspicacious of his customers, those who (Shakespeare could hope) would plumb the density, complexity, allusions, and multilevel ironies he offered up. (Think: Jonson’s frequently expressed obsession with this audience, and Hamlet’s “caviary to the general.”)


We here on SHAKSPER know as well as any that those bottomless depths are impenetrable even through multiple “hearings,” without some considered review of the plays in print. I’ll just assert baldly: writers want their readers/auditors to get their jokes. I can’t imagine Shakespeare was any different.


To suggest that Shakespeare cared nothing for those readers when writing, that he exerted no effort to cater or deliver unto them (especially given his obsession with literary immortality, expressed especially and resoundingly in the sonnets), to me beggars belief.


Like others, I remain befuddled by the evidence (and notable lack of same) suggesting that Shakespeare was uninvolved in publication. But still: “Shakespeare didn’t care about publication” does not suggest, to me, that “Shakespeare didn’t care about his readers.” 


On the befuddlement, one possible, unprovable, surmise, that would explain things rather simply: Maybe Shakespeare just hated paying attention to previous works, was always moving on to the next: Not at all unheard of, among authors.


Or maybe he was just a hard-headed and clear-eyed man of business when it came to his work: he knew the money was in the playhouse, not on publishers row. (Cue Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”)


Or both.


Two perfectly plausible explanations, neither of which implies that Shakespeare didn’t care about readers when writing. 


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