Shakespeare has moved to New Haven, at least until early June. This semester, Yale University is hosting a daily (!) series of events called Shakespeare at Yale -- a project masterminded by David Scott Kastan, but which includes a startling variety of people, places, and performances. There are a number of ongoing (and online!) exhibitions that exploit the Shakespearean riches (and that really is the appropriate word) to be found all around the Yale campus. The best of the bunch has to be the remarkable exhibit at the Beinecke Library, Remembering Shakespeare -- a massive exhibit that draws on the Beinecke collections, as well as that of the Elizabethan Club. The exhibit was curated by Kastan and Kathryn James, who have also produced a lovely exhibition catalog. In addition to the online exhibit, be sure to check out the Remembering Shakespeare blog. The good folks at Yale were nice enough to invite me to give a Beinecke Lecture in the History of the Book back in February, so I got to see the exhibit firsthand (although if you can't make it, both the online version and the catalog make fantastic substitutes). I talked about an early reader of Shakespeare's two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, and so I was especially intrigued by one particular item in the exhibit: a manuscript with an extract from Lucrece.
You can find larger (and zoomable) images of the manuscript in question in the online exhibit here; on the exhibit blog here; and in the Beinecke catalog here. The manuscript is a copy of Peter Idle's Instructions to his son that was once owned, presumably in the late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth century, by one Thomas Dowse, who inscribed his name -- time and time again -- on the flyleaves: "Thomas Dowse his book" or "Thomas Dowse his name."
On the flyleaves Thomas Dowse also wrote (and repeated) a few two-line excerpts, from the likes of Erasmus and William Warner, as well as one, on the same page above, which comes from Shakespeare's Lucrece -- leading to the conclusion that this is one of the earliest quotations of Shakespeare's poem (and indeed, perhaps of Shakespeare). Dowse's interest in copying out these lines seems to be equal parts handwriting practice (hence the repetition) and commonplacing -- that is, extracting useful and appropriate lines which have some relevance to one's interests and one's own practices of composition.
Dowse copies out the lines from Lucrece twice, with only minimal changes:
huge rocks, huge winds, stronge pirats, shelues and sands,
the Marchante feares, ere rich at home he lands.
huge rocks, high windes, strong pirats, shelues & sands,
the Marchant feares, ere rich at home he lands.
As the catalog states, "the lines, describing the risks that must be faced before eventual success, might well have appealed to an ambitious young man eager to make his way in late Elizabethan England, and so they took their place among the improving maxims and inspiring epigrams that Dowse copied into his book." This is an apt description of what the lines might mean once removed from the context of Shakespeare's poem, where they mean something altogether different: in context, the lines describe the obstacles to Tarquin's nefarious ambition, as he rushes toward the chamber of Lucrece:
The stanza from which the lines are taken is filled with relatively abstract, and thus widely applicable, statements -- just the sort of sententious phrases an avid commonplacer would look for. (I've written previously on the presence of commonplace markers in the early printed texts of Lucrece, which mark specific sententious lines, and which also serve to mark the text as a whole as a suitable source for commonplacing; for more, go here). Shakespeare's two narrative poems were extremely attractive to readers -- excerpts from the two poems far outnumber those from the plays in the early modern period, particularly in a series of printed commonplace books that appeared around the year 1600.
It was the wider popularity of the poems that piqued my interest in the Dowse extracts, and so I did a bit of searching on EEBO, only to find the very two lines Dowse had copied in one of those printed commonplace books, Bel-vedere. This book included a startling array of two-line extracts, all of which were unattributed (save for a list of authors that prefaced the book). And here you can see the extract, conveniently located at the bottom of the recto on this page opening:
So did Dowse copy the lines directly from a copy of Shakespeare's poem? Or did he find the lines in a ready-made printed commonplace book? Or did he encounter them in some other context? It's difficult to come to a conclusion -- but what we can say is that the lines as copied by Dowse on that flyleaf have little to do with Shakespeare's authorship or reputation. As fits the practice of commonplacing, Dowse's interest was in the applicable, sententious quality of the extract, rather than in its source in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was not the only contemporary English writer who struck Dowse as interesting, since on another flyleaf he copied out an extract from William Warner's (famously sententious) poem Albions England:
Again, you can see a much larger, zoomable image here. The lines appear under yet another repetition of Dowse's name, and read as follows:
Prayse not the beuty of thy wife though she of forme be sped
for Gyges moveth so did graft on Candaules his head
As you can see here, the lines appear at the bottom of this page, taken from the 1586 edition of Warner's book:
A bit of quick searching shows that these two lines also appear in a printed commonplace book, this time Englands Parnassus, published, like Bel-vedere, in 1600:
Unlike the Shakespearean lines above, these are attributed to "VV. Warner." So there is a better chance that Dowse had Warner in mind -- and indeed, with this (admittedly small) sample we can see that, considering the minor textual variations in Englands Parnassus (notably, "fame" for "forme"), it's more likely that Dowse copied the lines directly from Warner. But at the very least, the mobility of these extracts removes them from any straightforward regime of authorship, placing them instead in the more abstract context of sententious extracts with little or no connection to an attributed author.
It is in fact this mobility that makes the Dowse manuscript so valuable and interesting, beyond any putative connection to canonical authors. Even if Dowse wasn't thinking of Shakespeare, his act of copying does demonstrate the ways in which Shakespeare's texts circulated -- and re-circulated -- through the practice of commonplacing. Shakespeare, that is, could be valued because his texts (or at least some of his texts) had a kind of aesthetic quality that made them attractive to appropriative readers. We might say, then, that we remember Shakespeare in part because early readers like Thomas Dowse re-membered Shakespeare's texts -- whether or not he remembered Shakespeare himself.