"Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations."
--Orson Welles (attributed, but possibly apocryphal -- more on this below)
In my last post, I wrote about the texts of Shakespeare's early narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594) -- the first works by the poet to appear in print. What I didn't mention -- and what has been on my mind this week, as I read the proofs for an article on this very subject -- was that both poems were first printed by a native of Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon: Richard Field (a printer who is, suffice it to say, near and dear to me). We have several books printed by Field here at Iowa, and here I'd like to take a closer look at one book in particular -- or, rather, a single feature of early modern printing: inverted commas; aka, commonplace markers; aka, early modern quotation marks.
Here's the title-page for A World of Wonders (1607; catalog record here) with Field's trademark anchor device:
The book is an entertaining anti-Catholic treatise, originally written in French by Henri Estienne, and translated into English by "R.C." (which is usually interpreted as Richard Carew). Here's an excerpt from the book (a passage on excommunication):
You can see the line of quotation marks down the left margin, marking the lines quoted from "this poore Franciscan" Michael Menot -- the specific citation is even given at the start of the passage:
"And because the place in Menot serueth so fitly for this purpose, I will here insert it. He saith therefore fol. 143 col. 4 He that is excommunicated..."In this case, the quotation marks (or, more accurately, the pairs of inverted commas) signal that the lines are taken from another text -- unlike modern quotation marks, though, these inverted commas are placed in front of every line quoted, not simply placed at the beginning and end of the (lengthy) quotation. This is because inverted commas at the beginning of a line did not necessarily signify that the text was a quotation -- there were other functions this form of punctuation could fulfill. There have been a number of scholarly studies on the history of quotation marks, but to distill and simplify that history here, for my purposes, it will be sufficient to say that the function of signalling a quotation with this form of punctuation emerged gradually during the early modern period -- that is, inverted commas were eventually identified only with the function of marking a quotation.
So what other purpose did inverted commas fulfill? As the alternative name "commonplace markers" so clearly shows, inverted commas could mark, well, the commonplaces inserted in a text -- that is, phrases that were particularly quotable, rather than phrases that were being quoted. Early modern readers were urged to mark up their books, and this was one common form of marginalia inserted by readers. Likewise, printed commonplace markers could be inserted in a book so that the commonplaces could be easily identified by readers -- who could then copy down the phrases into their manuscript commonplace books. Since commonplaces -- also known as sententiae, or gnomae, or any one of a number of other descriptors -- were normally drawn from familiar and authoritative sources, it was also quite possible that the phrase was, in fact, being quoted from another source. This in part explains the dual functions of inverted commas -- a function that is exemplified in another passage from A World of Wonders:
There's a lot happening in this brief passage: first, the point here is to cleverly and ironically mock "all sorts of censurers," those "hastie hot-spurres" who fling "taunting quips" at the learned Greek and Latin historiographers. The author then quotes a few of these commonplace (and, in context, ridiculous and unlearned) quips: "As when they say, Herodotus doth nothing but lie. Thucydides can pen an oration pretily wel, and that is all. Xenophon is not like himselfe in his history." The italics here are a crucial typographical signifier -- as G.K. Hunter showed long ago (in a seminal article in The Library, which if you have access, can be found here) sententiae could be marked in a number of ways, including inverted commas and italics. So, here the italics serve to mark these quips -- mockingly -- as the commonplace utterances of foolish critics.
The alternative form of marking commonplaces is also present here, as you can see by the three sets of inverted commas in the left margin. The author continues, writing that
"some shew themselues yet more ridiculous in giuing peremptorie iudgment of the style of the historian by the translation; as when they say, Thucydides hath no such graue and exquisite stile as some affirme him to haue: for a man can see no such thing neither in the Latin, French, nor any such translation."Like the first passage above, the inverted commas here mark the passage as a quotation of sorts -- not an explicit or specific quotation, but rather a representative passage, typical of the "ridiculous" and "peremptorie judgment[s]" of critics. However, that is not the only reason inverted commas are used here, because the passage explicitly invokes the "style" of Thucydides, a style that is called "graue and exquisite" -- exactly the kinds of adjectives usually applied to the style of sententiae. Commonplace markers were used to signal the "graue and exquisite" passages in texts -- especially classical texts -- and so the use of this punctuation mark here is doubly apt. (Incidentally, an early reader has corrected "such" to "other" -- just about the only reader's marks in this book, a sign itself of the often idiosyncratic and frustrating habits of readers).
So what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, the early texts of Lucrece -- printed by none other than our man Richard Field -- included several passages marked with inverted commas. Here's just one of many examples, taken from the EEBO copy of the 1594 Lucrece:
Field and his compositors knew what those inverted commas signified, and since they tended to follow their copy pretty closely, it's quite likely that the manuscripts for both Lucrece and, years later, for A World of Wonders, included those inverted commas. Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier have written about the significance of commonplacing Shakespeare's poems in an excellent essay called "Reading and Authorship" (part of which can be read here).
By far the most popular and populous set of vernacular English books to be marked up with printed inverted commas was playbooks -- and indeed, both early quartos of Shakespeare's Hamlet include commonplace markers. (Stallybrass and Zack Lesser have an excellent article on Hamlet and on the commonplacing of professional plays more generally, which can be found here). Unsurprisingly, in Q1 Hamlet, the famous lines Polonius (or as he's called in Q1, Corambis) speaks to Laertes are marked as commonplaces -- as of course they were intended to be, and to be perceived as, by early audiences and readers. You can see these commonplace markers for yourself here, on C2r and C2v, at the British Library's excellent Shakespeare in Quarto website.
I spend a lot of my time -- a lot of my time -- writing about commonplacing and Shakespeare, so I'd like to abandon Hamlet for the moment in order to discuss a couple of other instances of commonplacing -- in the 21st century. A few months back, in her (now defunct) column in the NY Times Magazine (here's the link to the column), Virginia Heffernan, with characteristic anxiety, wrote about a new feature on the Kindle called "popular highlights" in which you could see the lines in a book most often "underlined" by other readers. She called this a kind of "crowd-sourced literary criticism," but, tellingly, went on to characterize it as a "violation of virgin text" -- an intrusion into the solitary experience of reading. What "popular highlights" really constituted was not "literary criticism" but digital commonplace markers -- these are the passages that catch your eye because the material form of the text as you encounter it tells you that they are important, just like those sets of inverted commas in early modern printed books. Heffernan then (inadvertently) confirms this by trying to condemn the tastes of other readers, since, in her words, "What's worse is that they invariably choose the most Polonius-like passages." Exactly -- the pithiest, most quotable passages are (as they ever have been) the most attractive to readers, in part because they are already the most familiar to readers.
As a case study in the banality of "popular highlights," Heffernan chooses a single four-word phrase from Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: "USE WELL THY FREEDOM." (You can see the page from which this is taken here). Taken out of context (as commonplaces are meant to be, after all) the phrase is a "solid sentiment" -- but, as she notes, in context the phrase is "not an author's message for all time" but merely "an imagined engraving on a fictional college building," and while it has a narrative purpose, when highlighted it "crumble[s] into meaninglessness when set off like a free-standing decree in a self-help book." The implication is that the folks who have highlighted this passage aren't the sharpest of readers, more prone to self-help aphorisms than the rigors of A Great American Novel. As an excerpted injunction, this four-word phrase may not exactly do the novel justice -- but what escapes Heffernan here is that the phrase may have been highlighted so often not only because it was typographically set off in the text -- capitalized to mark its status as an inscription -- but because it may have been familiar to certain of Franzen's readers, since the (unnamed) college in the novel is his alma mater, Swarthmore -- where there is a building with exactly this inscription (see this article in The Daily Gazette at Swarthmore for an explanation).
The Kindle's "popular highlights" have since been joined by "Public Notes" (see the Public Notes FAQ page) which allow Kindle owners to access the highlights and the notes made by other readers. Amazon seems to have a didactic purpose in mind, since they explain public notes by saying that "Now authors, thought leaders, passionate readers, professors, and all Kindle users can opt in to share their notes" (hey, at least "professors" made the list, even if we are not "passionate readers" or "thought leaders"!). The notes of a "professor" or "thought leader" might be more akin to the learned commentaries that accompanied early modern editions of, say, classical texts, or the bible -- whereas, especially if reading a novel, we might be more interested in the "commonplaces" highlighted by those "passionate readers" (or even the authors -- as, for example, Ben Jonson was notorious for doing -- a practice that, it must be said, was not always popular among readers). I don't own a Kindle, so I can't say how these notes affect the reading experience -- I'm just thrilled that they exist, as a kind of digital analogue to early modern commonplace markers -- but one reader, Sam Anderson, greeted the release of the "Public Notes" function with a passionate paean to marginalia (as luck would have it, in this column in the revamped NY Times Magazine), characterizing it as a "landmark in electronic marginalia," and, even better, as the long-awaited fulfillment of his own "Coleridgean fantasy" (Coleridge being the one who coined the term "marginalia" in something resembling its modern sense).
The highlights and notes available on your Kindle are not marked with inverted commas, since that punctuation mark has long since been rebranded as "quotation marks," used for a specific purpose within the regime of intellectual property. Once you become aware of the significance of inverted commas in early modern books, though, you will never read them the same way again -- it opens up an entirely new (if, perhaps, still familiar to us) way of reading in which texts are mined for pithy, quotable passages. However, quotation marks continue to evolve, as is amply demonstrated by what might be my favorite website, the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks. There you will find hundreds of images in which quotation marks are not used to quote a text; instead, they are often used for an ironic effect (like scare quotes, or their material equivalent, "air quotes") -- or, rather, they are interpreted ironically by the captions that accompany the images. Most of the examples on the site seem to use quotations marks for a kind of all-purpose emphasis -- what may have begun as a way to cleverly mock bad grammar has transformed into a compelling record of the continuing evolution of punctuation.
To conclude for now, I'll return to the Orson Welles quote with which I started. We might say that his implicit lament -- that audiences no longer truly engage with Shakespeare in the theater, but instead simply wait for the most familiar lines to be recited yet again -- is a bit misguided, since audiences always sat (or stood, or read) through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations -- the commonplaces -- that he inserted into the plays. The final twist here is that I have no idea if Welles ever uttered this quote: I cannot find it in any of my go-to Welles/Shakespeare reference sources (in which I'm pretty well-versed, I must say). The only attribution I can find is through various websites which list famous quotations (none of which give any citations -- and indeed, some of which attribute the quotation to another famously quotable O.W., Oscar Wilde). This is exactly the kind of apocryphal quote that gets endlessly reproduced (mostly by dictionaries or website of famous quotations), but which has no discernible origin. It also fits the description of an apocryphal quote because it sounds so much like something Welles would have said -- Welles, who vocally claimed inspiration from Shakespeare throughout his life, and who often had a testy relationship with his audiences. This quote is in fact pretty close to a well-documented quote (see this post from Wellesnet.com for a good introduction and explanation, and here is the relevant chapter from Michael Anderegg's fantastic book Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture), from the preface of Everybody's Shakespeare, which Welles co-edited as a precocious teenager (!) -- and so I'll end this post with one last quotation, full of youthful exuberance, but with a closing warning about Shakespeare's supposed universality:
Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man's season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heart-beats. He speaks to everyone and we all claim him, but its wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn't properly belong to us but to another world; a florid and entirely remarkable world that smelled assertively of columbine and gun powder and printer's ink, and was vigorously dominated by Elizabeth.