Shakespeare as minor dramatist

One of the concerns of Before Shakespeare is the impact of the canon on contemporary performance, editorial practice and theatre history. Dramatists, like playhouses, are often divided, either explicitly or implicitly, into groups deemed major or minor. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be publishing papers from the 2019 annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America’s  in Washington DC. Our fourth paper comes from Andy Kesson and was written for a seminar on ‘Shakespeare and “Minor” Dramatists’ (note the sceptical quotation marks), with thanks to all the seminar participants for a fruitful discussion, and particularly David McInnis and Tom Rutter for organising and chairing us so effectively. To read the other posts in the series, follow the links for Robert Stagg on the terms minor and major, Eoin Price on the long history of early modern plays onstage and B. K. Adams on the (non)diversity of early modern editing.

[A]re we sure what constitutes a good poem in 1600?[1]

[S]urely the cultural value of Shakespeare was merely axiomatic in twenty-first-century England?[2]

In one sense, Shakespeare was never a minor dramatist, at least as far as we can tell: he doesn’t seem to have produced much in the way of juvenilia, and in comparison to an exact contemporary like Marlowe he has often looked like something of a late starter. But there are plenty of ways his career might be thought about from the perspective of a minor, marginal writer. At some point in the 1580s, Shakespeare began an acting and writing career so obscure it can not now be reconstructed. Philip Henslowe’s ‘diary’ records the authorial activities of a range of playwrights from 1590 to 1604, in which Shakespeare is conspicuous by his absence. Although this has rarely been seen as strange by Shakespeare scholars, later dramatists who inherited his role as resident playwright habitually worked for other companies too, and the manuscripts we call Sir Thomas More suggest that Shakespeare may have done exactly that (in a writing role we might want to describe as minor or subsidiary). In 1595, Locrine became the first play to claim somebody called ‘W.S.’ as a creative contributor, three years before Shakespeare’s full name appeared on a play title page. In 1609, Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in an edition which appeared to receive little attention. And across these years, only around half of Shakespeare’s surviving output went into print in single-play editions, and many of these never went into a second edition. If book historians often describe a book appearing in ‘only’ one edition as a ‘failure’, what does this say about the roughly 50% of Shakespeare’s surviving plays that were never printed in stand-alone editions at all?

Meanwhile Shakespeare could seem a problematic figure to his contemporaries. A 1592 pamphlet attacked the author not only as minor but as a minor, an inconvenient, jumped up, terrible, bombastic youngster. John Fletcher, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton rewrote, ridiculed or critiqued Shakespeare’s work in terms that suggest they found it dated and unsatisfactory. Whilst these literary heavyweights seem to have had an uneasy relationship with Shakespeare, it is noticeable that those willing to state unqualified approval of at least some of his work, such as Francis Meres or Gabriel Harvey, tended to be at the periphery of literary culture. In 1623, that most significant of years for Shakespeareans, a Revels Office document refers to an already ‘olde playe called Winters Tale‘.[3] The play was only 12 years old, and about to go into print for the first time.

This paper responds to the idea of ‘Shakespeare and minor dramatists’ by asking what happens when we think of Shakespeare as a minor dramatist. It is written by someone who wouldn’t normally have the word ‘minor’ as part of their scholarly vocabulary, and is an attempt to unpack some of the ethical and canonical issues the term raises. Accordingly, the rest of this paper asks what happens if we decentre Shakespeare by attending to those moments in his literary biography when he appears marginal or negligible. Such moments are usually treated as bizarre anomalies in Shakespeare’s career, or instead entirely overlooked, but this paper asks what happens if we instead privilege them as windows onto Shakespeare as minor, peripheral dramatist.

Shakespeare in contemporary scholarship

Shakespeare’s centrality to early modern studies is so obvious now that it barely needs stating, but it is less obvious how that modern centrality reflects or distorts Shakespeare’s importance to and in his own time. In recent years scholars have actively pursued work to map out that importance and weigh up its cultural value in both contemporary and historical terms, an enquiry often involving direct comparisons between Shakespeare and the writers he worked alongside, moving between the categories of major and minor authors that our seminar group is exploring. Lukas Erne, Patrick Cheney, Adam Hooks and Gary Taylor have written on Shakespeare’s place in the print and (to a lesser extent) theatrical markets of his lifetime, whilst Michael Dobson, Emma Depledge and Peter Kirwan have traced the canonisation of Shakespeare some years after his death.[4] Terence G. Schoone-Jongen, meanwhile, has examined the early Shakespeare’s emergence into public view as a player and writer, Emma Smith has surveyed Shakespeare’s place in early modern attempts to list, evaluate and celebrate contemporary literary culture, and Jeremy Lopez has studied the nineteenth-century and later history of anthologising early modern plays, a history defined by and around the one early modern author who did not need anthologising in this manner, Shakespeare himself.[5]

Such work has thrown up some confusing inconsistencies in the way scholarship thinks about Shakespeare’s importance. For Erne, Shakespeare’s place in the print market in his own lifetime was ‘astounding’ and ‘massive’, so that (in a phrase I always feel the need to read twice) ‘a name to make money with was “Shakespeare”.[6] Citing Erne’s work, Taylor has claimed Shakespeare as ‘undoubtedly the most successful writer of plays […] for the court’ (a remark which calls attention to how little we understand Shakespeare’s place in a non-courtly performance context, I suspect) and claimed him as ‘more popular in print than any of his fellow playwrights, poets, or writers of prose fiction, surviving in more editions and more reprints than any of his literary competitors except Robert Greene’.[7] But where Erne and Taylor find a Shakespeare who is already the outstanding figure of his generation in his own lifetime, Smith’s study of early modern evaluations of literary greatness repeatedly finds Shakespeare, when he is named in such accounts at all, as ‘prominent but still not pre-eminent’. Such lists ‘reinstate Shakespeare among other playwrights without difficulty’, and Smith suggests ‘we might usefully import some of that indifference to our own critical methodologies’.[8] Across these scholars’ work, then, we have what I presume are the mutually exclusive options to be undoubtedly astounded by Shakespeare’s massiveness, or usefully indifferent to his non-pre-eminence.

For Depledge and Dobson, meanwhile, Shakespeare’s canonisation occurred not in his lifetime, but some years after his death, in the second half of the seventeenth century for Depledge, and in the 1730s for Dobson. Working in the following century and up to the present day, Lopez makes a statement about anthologies that also describes our wider critical impasse: ‘ingrained, conservative standards of value will continue to collude with the means of production to create anthologies [of plays] that represent a sharply bifurcated view of early modern dramatic literature and continue to ensure that Shakespeare remains unspoiled by contact with the works of his rivals’. As a result of his study of the history of early modern anthologisation, Lopez makes the still more alarming suggestion that ‘The “canon” of early modern dramatic texts subject to and available for scholarship, pedagogy, and appreciation has shrunk considerably since the eighteenth century’.[9]

Andrew Hadfield suggests that:

Teachers of early modern English literature are both blessed and cursed by the gargantuan figure of Shakespeare. Blessed, because Shakespeare’s presence means that the study of the period will always be in demand and we will never have to face the bleak prospect that often assails our colleagues teaching the eighteenth century which lacks an equivalent figure unless the new queen of English literature, Jane Austen, is co-opted for that role. Cursed, because Shakespeare can blot out the culture from which he has emerged, especially now that so few advanced school students study Chaucer. Shakespeare serves as an intellectual and emotional focus on his own, so that many students will only want to study him.[10]

Again, it is worth asking how this pedagogical situation reflects a wider research problem. To take just one example of the way our understanding of early modern literary culture is skewed and refracted by Shakespeare’s work, Barbara Fuchs has suggested that Shakespeare acts as an impediment in scholarly curiosity about early modern prose fiction, both because he did not write in that mode, but also because his later plays have been given the ‘strange, ahistorical categorisation’ of romance.[11] Signs of Shakespeare’s centrality to the way his contemporaries are read, written of and organised across the scholarly field can be seen everywhere, as with Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, which defines Middleton’s greatness by and against Shakespeare’s. To be claimed as a great writer, similarities to and divergences from Shakespeare much be assessed and accounted for. He is a canonical yardstick, a literary litmus test.

And of course we’re writing, reading and discussing our papers for the Shakespeare Association of America rather than the My Goodness What a Lot of Brilliant Authors and Centres of Literary Production There Were in This Place and Time Association of America, which might in some ways be a better summary of the kind of work pursued at SAA even if it took a lot longer to say. A town like Canterbury, birthplace to Stephen Gosson, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe and William Harvey nevertheless celebrates its heritage with businesses like The Falstaff Hotel, denying all of us the chance to relax over a cuppa in The Scourge of God Tearooms. As Kirwan observes,

“Shakespeare” stands as shorthand for an individual, a body of texts, a standard of literary quality (the commonplace criticism “It’s hardly Shakespeare”), an historical period (e.g., Andrew Gurr’s The Shakespearean Stage), a field of academic research (“Shakespeare Studies” as synecdoche for research on early modern drama) and a marker of mood, dignity and cultural value. To explain what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is impossible in any objective sense, because the signifiers stand for a range of indefinable and contradictory effects.[12]

The synecdochic effect of the Shakespeareanisation of early modern literary culture is made all the more confusing by the uncertain limits of the Shakespearean canon. As Taylor puts it,

much of what we label “Shakespeare”, in lights on Broadway, broadcast from Hollywood, enshrined at Stratford-upon-Avon, or guarded in the underground bunkers of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is actually the creative work of other people.[13]

As Taylor reminds us, Shakespeare is someone whose authorship is more elusive than often suggested. In the often startlingly pugnacious scholarly field of attribution, even a cautious attribution scholar such as John Jowett calculates that at least eleven plays in the First Folio are collaborative, whilst the New Oxford Shakespeare finds ‘Shakespeare’s as the only hand in fewer than two-thirds of the surviving plays that Shakespeare had a hand in’.[14]

It isn’t altogether clear to me how any of this recent work continues or deviates from late twentieth-century challenges to bardolatry, to a Shakespeare who is, for Graham Holderness, ‘a sign post pointing towards something greater and more complete than itself’, or, for Terry Eagleton, ‘the quintessential commodity, at once ever new and consolingly recognisable, always different and eternally the same, a magnificent feat of self-identity persisting through the most bizarre diversions and variations’.[15] But for someone so often claimed to be major and central, this is a deeply eccentric kind of centricity.

Shakespeare in print

Erne’s study of Shakespeare and the Book Trade is excellent on the bits of the book trade it wishes to acknowledge, but curiously silent on anything that does not contribute to the thesis of Shakespeare’s astounding and massive print presence. One such silence, perhaps surprisingly, is the Shakespeare play collection of 1623, the so-called First Folio (a bardolatrous term if ever there was one). It is not until the end of Erne’s book that this folio’s print history is acknowledged as a ‘bleak’ indicator of Shakespeare’s popularity (195). The same might be said of the 1609 edition of Shakespeares Sonnets, which would not be reprinted for over thirty years.[16] Another silence, perhaps less surprisingly, relates to the many Shakespeare plays which were never printed in smaller print forms as stand-alone, single-text books. Early modern England was apparently a place where Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It and my favourite Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleopatra, were not considered to be worth printing at all. This list is not exhaustive: around half of the plays collected in the 1623 edition had never before been printed. And rather than steadily increasing, the likelihood that new Shakespeare plays would go into print actually decreased as his career progressed.[17] These look like three bibliographical facts worth putting together: the possibly lukewarm reaction to the 1609 poetry and the 1623 play collection, together with the lack of interest on the part of Shakespeare himself, his company, stationers or the reading public in seeing around half of his output going into print. It seems striking that Shakespearean scholars have not put them together.

In recent years book historians have emphasised reprints as useful indicators of the success of a text (or author) in print. As Alan Farmer and Zachary Lesser have shown, although scholars had previously tended to overlook reprint rates, such data shows us that ‘the publisher anticipated continued demand for the book’. As Lesser puts it, ‘a reprint can be taken to indicate that the previous edition had either sold out or was about to sell out’; ‘the decision to reprint’, Jowett argues, ‘would lie with the copy-holding stationer on the basis of his perception of demand’.[18] This work has been incredibly transformative, but one of its inadvertent downsides is that scholars now repeatedly describe texts that are printed in only one bibliographical edition as a ‘failure’, one of literary scholarship’s favourite words, and often a sure sign that canonisation (or uncanonising) is taking place.

One such example of this mindset is the way scholars have understood the period from 1591-92 when Joan and William Brome published a series of John Lyly plays. They began by reprinting Lyly’s Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, and went on to publish first editions of three more Lyly plays. ‘This is the first’, Joan Brome wrote in a preface to the reader in Endymion, ‘And if this may pass with thy good liking, I will then go forward to publish the rest’.[19] And then they proceeded to do just that, strongly suggesting these plays met with readers’ good liking.

Scholars, however, have read these editions as commercial failures because they seem to have generated no further reprints. As David Bevington puts it, for example, ‘This was to be the only quarto of Endymion, in a clear sign of the dramatist’s declining fortunes’. Bevington says elsewhere that the 1591 reprint of Sappho and Phao is a sign of ‘the rapid eclipse of fortune that brought Lyly’s career to an untimely halt’, and perceives all of the Bromes’ publishing decisions as failures because ‘none of these plays seems to have required further printing in quarto’.[20] But this is at odds with the fact that the Bromes continued with their project to print Lyly (and only Lyly) plays: they may not have been reprinting individual texts, but they committed to publishing five plays by the same author across two years. It’s striking that the Bromes and Bevington see this issue from such different perspectives: where the modern scholar looks for reprints and diagnoses failure in their absence, the early modern stationers look for a sequence of plays in which each new publication is dependent on the success of the last: ‘This is the first […]. And if this may pass with thy good liking, I will then go forward to publish the rest’. This sequence of publications constitutes the reprinting of a writer and a repertory, if not of individual plays.

Exactly the same issue occurs in the historiography of the printing of the Queen’s Men repertory. In the introduction to their collected essays on the company, Helen Ostovich, Holger Syme and Andrew Griffin compare Queen’s Men plays to the print history of Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy, and lament that ‘No similar success stories can be told of any of the Queen’s Men plays, which fizzled in book form once they entered the market en masse in 1594′.[21] For both the Lyly and the Queen’s Men plays, these accounts are at odds with the print market, which in these years was only just experimenting with the novel idea of printing a play that had been recently performed in one of the new London playhouses. These plays weren’t fizzling, they were setting a precedent at a time when stationers clearly prioritised new plays over reprints. It is striking that scholarship notices the lack of reprints for fairly non-canonical plays, but does not stop to ask why Shakespeare’s early plays, many of which had been onstage for some time at this point, were rarely amongst those chosen for publication at all. If the Queen’s Men plays were fizzling, what on earth was happening to the early Shakespeare plays?

It has become a truism of book history that a text printed in a single edition therefore represents commercial failure.[22] But this is very unlikely to be always and self-evidently true. The Bromes, for example, never published plays before 1591 or after 1592: Lyly was a generic exception in their professional profile, and it’s not surprising that they did not return to publishing plays. It seems worth at least considering the possibility that a single edition indicates a stationer temporarily experimenting with a new kind of book, as the Bromes were clearly doing, or feeling pleased with a modest return but unwilling to risk a second edition (which is quite different to the idea of commercial failure). It might equally indicate a stationer with a success on their hands but with no time to exploit it because of other professional commitments, or a stationer uneasy about the success of a given book. It is possible to trace the history of the ownership of particular plays into the hands of stationers who never published dramatic material: when such plays aren’t reprinted, this may tell us nothing about the texts themselves or their potential popularity, and instead indicate indifference or hostility on the part of their owners to their theatrical identity.

But the greatest problem with this view that single editions automatically constitute and reflect commercial disaster is that scholars have continued to advance it without stopping to ask what its implications are for plays which never go into single-play editions at all. It should be said here that it is entirely normal for early modern plays not to be printed: since about four in every five plays in this period did not go into print, it is the printed plays which are the statistical weirdos, not the other way round. But if scholarship wants to claim single editions of plays as evidence of cultural insignificance, often making explicit comparisons to plays and playwrights who are now definitively canonical, it ought at least to ask itself what this does to our view of Shakespeare’s visibility, especially with regard to that section of his work which never went into single-play editions at all. What happens to our sense of Shakespeare as major or minor dramatist if we attend to the significant portion of his work that did not go into quarto or other smaller book formats, and apply the same stringent attitude to texts which do not immediately go into reprint that has been applied to Shakespeare’s contemporaries? At the very least, these issues trouble Erne’s idea that Shakespeare’s name is an automatic money-spinner on the print market.

Enduring Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s endurance into modern culture is usually presented as something to celebrate, but this paper has started to ask what we lose when we find ourselves forced to endure Shakespeare. The act of centring Shakespeare has historically entailed the decentring of his contemporaries, and as a result Shakespeare has come to stand for, but also stand in front of, not only his fellow writers but the entire contemporary scene of educators, business people, playhouses, stationers and print houses, patrons, audiences and readers who enabled his work to happen. The idea of an enduring Shakespeare, then, one who will always be with us, entails a process of enduring him, of tolerating, sustaining and reinforcing his presence in our own time.

Shakespeare has been historically celebrated as a great universal writer, someone reflecting wide swathes of humanity, and yet he wrote more plays named after men called Henry than plays named after women. Indeed, he wrote more plays named after Timon of Athens than plays named only after women. He is, famously, the author of more sonnets than anyone else in the language, but he also has a remarkably limited sense of what a comedy should look like, moving his comic narratives towards heterosexual marriage so compulsively that his one play to not do this also makes a point of commenting on this as a deviation. In the case of both his poetry and his plays, he gives the sense of someone who got stuck in certain literary forms, compulsively reproducing certain narrative and structural shapes. He is, in other words, and like all writers, limited, but it is striking that a celebration of his work is often premised on a lack of acknowledgement of those limits. As his titles suggest, there is surprisingly little room for women in Shakespeare’s plays, and some of the most famous women in his canon are given remarkably little stage time. I can’t have been the first teenager to read Hamlet and wonder where Ophelia had gone. ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’, Lady Macbeth is told, and the play writes her out of its stage world at the same moment as her husband writes her out of his confidence; she only re-enters the play thereafter speaking and moving without her own volition.

Shakespeare is, above all, a playwright of grumpy men, locating masculine unhappiness at the heart of all of his work. ‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad’, says Antonio at the start of The Merchant of Venice, but of course the reason he is sad is that he is a man in a Shakespeare play, and joins Malvolio, Hamlet, Lear, Caesar, Benedict, Romeo and all the other moody boys in this supposedly diverse corpus. One of the overlooked aspects of Shakespeare’s first entrance into print, in the form of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, is that it expects readers to identify him by a single line of blank verse, and that line distinguishes itself via its misogyny. Fletcher, too, would go on to write sequels or responses to Shakespeare plays which call attention to their very patriarchal gender politics. Seen from the perspective of his sonneteering, his relatively limited relationship with genre and his many unhappy men, Shakespeare is actually curious for the repetitiveness of his compositional practices. Shakespearean scholarship is equally curious, it seems to me, for its tolerance and celebration of such repetitiveness. After several centuries attending to the prolixity of Shakespeare’s writing, is it worth asking what made him write so many sonnets, so many Henrys, so many plays about men? Fletcher, Groatsworth and the various early modern plays structured around female identity suggest that latter question would not be anachronistic.

Though Kate McLuskie and Kate Rumbold open their book on Shakespeare’s cultural value by asking if it is ‘merely axiomatic’, they close it by reminding us that Shakespeare’s place in contemporary UK culture has ‘been sustained by more than a century of publically funded education and more than half a century of state investment in the arts’.[23] Of the roughly 400 plays surviving from Shakespeare’s period, the UK and North American theatre scenes generally perform the same 10 to 15 plays, most of them by Shakespeare himself. It is no accident, it seems to me, that those other early modern writers whose plays are still performed with some regularity – Marlowe and Jonson in particular – are also the writers who share this Shakespearean disinterest in giving female characters stage time. At a time when female performers continue to struggle to find roles in classical theatre, many productions try to smooth out the gender biases of the conventional canon by cross-casting plays that otherwise offer little for women to do. Rather than continue to tell Shakespeare’s male-centred stories, it is surprising to see so little experimentation with that section of early modern drama in which women outnumber, outsmart and outperform men.

Michel Foucault warned that the concept of authorship served as a limit on readerly interpretation. Responding to this challenge, Taylor has recently insisted instead that the sheer prolixity of Shakespearean scholarship proves the opposite: ‘Empirically, the Shakespeare Association of America disproves Foucault’s hypothesis’.[24] Scholarly debates around Shakespeare are indeed dazzling and productive, but I can’t help be struck in some of the most recent controversies in our profession by how much these various disagreements actually agree on. In the academic reaction to Erne’s Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, the fallout centred on Shakespeare’s status as a popular and/ or literary writer. Likewise the curiously public debates around attribution study, which attract repeated journalistic attention, turn on the attribution and relative merits of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Whatever else these different disputes debate, they are not questioning the status of these plays as major works: indeed, the debates that Taylor suggests give the lie to Foucault’s warning about interpretive thrift, for all their disagreements, entrench Shakespearean ubiquity and are often astonishingly thrifty with regards to the rest of early modern literary culture.

We might therefore reread Taylor’s statement about Shakespeare’s popularity and wonder anew at its last three words:

more popular in print than any of his fellow playwrights, poets, or writers of prose fiction, surviving in more editions and more reprints than any of his literary competitors except Robert Greene.

The italics denote my emphasis of a phrase that is not much emphasised in the original text. Erne, too, points to Greene as a crucial point of comparison in Shakespeare and the Book Trade, but devotes only a short section to this supposed crux, seeing it from very much a Shakespearean perspective (see pp. 30-35). If Greene is so provocatively standing in the way of Shakespeare’s ultimate pre-eminence, and if our profession is interested in literary popularity, why has this fact not prompted greater scholarly curiosity in Greene’s own output, either with or without reference to Shakespeare? Greene’s apparent outselling of Shakespeare is all the more extraordinary given that he had a far shorter career than Shakespeare, a much less stable form of employment and income, operated in an earlier and less established market and worked in a very different (and perhaps more limited) range of genres, forms and narratives. But if scholars interested in Shakespeare’s place in the print market have repeatedly identified Greene as a more successful competitor, it is surely an example of the intellectual thrift Foucault warned about that this observation has prompted so little fresh research on Greene himself. Lori Humphrey Newcomb has shown the utility of considering Greene and Shakespeare’s relationship in greater depth, tracing the way Pandosto outsold its dramatisation, The Winter’s Tale, for several centuries, a useful reminder of the cultural contingencies of Shakespeare’s apparently unshakeable canonicity.[25] It would presumably not be too controversial to suggest that it is Greene, not Shakespeare, who is in need of such fresh research, which might release both figures from the nineteenth-century biographical assumptions which continue to define them.

Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale offer an especially prominent example of authorship as a concept limiting the reading of texts in the manner that Foucault suggests. Indeed I suspect the relationship between these two texts is the most poorly understood relationship in literary history. The supposed animosity between Greene and Shakespeare has become extraordinarily internalised in the way scholars read these two works, to the point that scholarship has been unable to imagine any positive reasons for Shakespeare to want to dramatise this story. Germaine Greer, for example, calls Greene ‘Shakespeare’s old enemy’ no less than twice in her book Shakespeare’s Wife, whilst Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare uses the imagined dislike between the two writers as the foundation for an unlikely theory that Falstaff in some way represents Greene himself.[26] Shakespeare’s biographers have been astonishingly frank about their own unhappiness with Greene himself: Samuel Schoenbaum describes the debate generated by Groatsworth as ‘wearying’, John Semple Smart complains that ‘This passage from Greene has had such a devastating effect on Shakespearian study that we cannot but wish it had never been written or never discovered’, whilst Park Honan, not a scholar given to rhetorical flourishes, describes it as ‘virtually a rape of Shakespeare’.[27] These are not conventional stances for scholars to take with respect to primary material, and they articulate the thrifty, one-sided view of literary culture encouraged by Shakespeare’s modern cultural position.

Pandosto was, to my knowledge, the first literary text to engage with the new crisis in sovereignty in the mid-1580s, to explore what happens when a monarch and their court turn in on each other and begin to behave like tyrants. It is much more likely to be this aspect of the text, I would suggest, which recommended itself to Shakespeare and his company, as an articulation of Elizabethan political unease found new currency twenty-five years later in the divisively pacifist reign of her successor. The fixation over Shakespeare’s animus with Greene makes Shakespeare seem oddly petty, writing The Winter’s Tale as some sort of revenge, and this insistence on reading the relationship between two texts only via their authors’ supposed biographies is especially ironic given that Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is itself dazzlingly preoccupied with authorship as a problem: that of its three writerly addressees, that of the newcomer Shakescene, and that of Greene himself, whether or not he was in fact the writer of the text.

This may be further evidence for the need Lopez describes for Shakespeare to remain unspoiled by contact with his contemporaries. If so, how do we begin to chart, study and understand Shakespeare in his own context, or to study that context in a way which is not defined by the historiographic presence or absence of Shakespeare? Whilst the Collected Works of Thomas Middleton handled comparisons to Shakespeare with panache, it nevertheless sought to define Middleton’s greatness by stating that Middleton too wrote excellent plays in each of the genres Shakespeare wrote in. But since when has writing good comedies, histories and tragedies been a marker of literary greatness, and what does this do to the canonicity of Homer, Jane Austen or Samuel Beckett? Mary Bly has recently warned that ‘When scholars limit themselves to Shakespeare, the oddness of Renaissance culture is unnoticed’, which I would suggest is a statement that remains true even once it is reversed: the focus on Shakespeare himself makes his own oddness hard to detect, which is one of the reasons our profession has accepted the 1623 title page triptych, Master William Shakespeareas Comedies, Histories and Tragedies as the obvious way to think about dramatic genre.[28]


I couldn’t quite decide how cheeky Tom and David’s seminar title was intended to be, but just in case Shakespeare’s so-called minor contemporaries are being trolled, I hope I will be forgiven for this pre-emptive piece of retaliation. This paper is, I confess, trolling Shakespeare, asking what happens when we trace the moments in his career and the moments in our scholarship when he appears most insignificant, out of step or, as our seminar puts it, minor.

Katherine Duncan-Jones has suggested that Shakespeare’s surname can be translated as ‘one who flashes a phallus’, which prompts the question of why parents with such a name would call their son William, doubling the penis possibilities.[29] In our collective arguments over the size and scale of Shakespeare’s cultural achievements, it is salutary to remember that we may be engaging in a very phalloeccentric mode of literary scholarship.

Andy Kesson

[1] Stephen Orgel, The Authentic Shakespeare and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage (London: Routledge, 2002), 232.

[2] Kate McLuskie and Kate Rumbold, Cultural Value in Twenty-First-Century England: The Case of Shakespeare (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 1.

[3] William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford (New York: Routledge, 1963), xvi.

[4] Lukas Erne, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Shakespeare and the Book Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare’s Literary Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Adam G. Hooks, Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography, and the Book Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Gary Taylor, ‘Artiginality: authorship after postmodernism’, in Gary Taylor and Gabriel Egan (eds.), The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Emma Depledge and Peter Kirwan (eds.), Canonising Shakespeare: Stationers and the Book Trade, 1640-1740 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Emma Depledge, Shakespeare’s Rise to Cultural Prominence: Print, Politics and Alteration, 1642-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[5] Emma Smith, ‘Shakespeare and early modern tragedy’, in Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Terence G. Schoone-Jongen, Shakespeare’s Companies: William Shakespeare’s Early Career and the Acting Companies, 1577-1594 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008); Jeremy Lopez, Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[6] Erne, Shakespeare and the Book Trade, 48, 42, 59 and 195.

[7] Taylor, ‘Artiginality’, 17 and 19.

[8]  Smith, ‘Shakespeare and early modern tragedy’, 133 and 147.

[9] Lopez, Constructing the Canon, 4 and 18.

[10] Andrew Hadfield, ‘Shakespeare and the problem of the early modern curriculum’, in Derval Conroy and Danielle Clarke (eds.), Teaching the Early Modern Period (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 146.

[11] Barbara Fuchs, Romance (New York: Routledge, 2004), 96-7.

[12] Peter Kirwan, Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha: Negotiating the Boundaries of the Dramatic Canon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 115.

[13] Taylor, ‘Artiginality’, 22.

[14] John Jowett, Shakespeare and Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 17; Taylor, ‘Artiginality’, 23

[15] Graham Holderness, Cultural Shakespeare: Essays in the Shakespeare Myth (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001), 107; Terry Eagleton, ‘Afterword’, in Graham Holderness (ed.), The Shakespeare Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 184.

[16] This puts both publications well outside standard book history methodologies for determining popularity, for example Ian Green’s suggestion that a text needs to be printed at least five times in thirty years to be understood as a best-seller (Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 173.

[17] Taylor thinks this happens from 1599 (‘Artiginality’, 20), Jowett in 1604 (Shakespeare and Text, 10).

[18] Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, ‘The popularity of playbooks revisited’, Shakespeare Quarterly 56.1 (Spring 2005), 1-32 (5); Zachary Lesser, ‘Playbooks’, in Joad Raymond (ed.), The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, vol. 1: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 526; Jowett, Shakespeare and Text, 10.

[19] John Lyly, Endymion, ed. David Bevington (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), 74.

[20] Bevington, Endymion, 1-2; Hunter and Bevington, Campaspe: Sappho, 190; Hunter and Bevington, Galatea: Midas, 111.

[21] Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme and Andrew Griffin (eds.), Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 8-9.

[22] See, for example, Erne, Shakespeare and the Book Trade, 75.

[23] McLuskie and Rumbold, Cultural Value, 249.

[24] Taylor, ‘Artiginality’, 26.

[25] Lori Humphrey Newcomb, Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[26] Germaine Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), 204 and 302; Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 2004), 218.

[27] Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 51; John Semple Smart, Shakespeare: Truth and Tradition (London: Edward Arnold, 1928), 196; Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 158.

[28] Mary Bly, ‘Defining the proper members of the Renaissance theatrical community’, Renaissance Drama 40 (2012), 113-123 (113).

[29] Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life (London: Arden, 2001), 26.

4 thoughts on “Shakespeare as minor dramatist

  1. Great paper, Andy. May I be so bold as to suggest that William Shakespeare’s biographers are the least likely sources of reliable indications of how large he loomed in contemporary culture? They endeavour to do a Rumpelstiltskin without the aid of Rumpelstiltskin himself, and end up (as people far smarter than I have pointed out) telling us more about themselves than they do about W.S and his imagined friends or enemies.


  2. Pingback: Mediators of the wor(l)d: editors, Shakespeare, and inclusion | Before Shakespeare

  3. Pingback: What is a minor dramatist? or, three types of minority | Before Shakespeare

  4. Pingback: Minor plays | Before Shakespeare

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