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Where the Mistery Lurkes

Catherine Nicholson, interviewed by Jana Prikryl
“Change remains the lifeblood of literary tradition.”
Catherine Nicholson

Catherine Nicholson

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

This year marks exactly four centuries since the publication of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, the giant set of thirty-six plays that reframed his work in “overtly literary terms,” as Catherine Nicholson puts it in our Sixtieth Anniversary Issue. Nicholson’s writing about Renaissance literature—including in books on the formation of a vernacular tradition (Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance) and on The Faerie Queene (Reading and Not Reading The Faerie Queene: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism)—flashes with a rare combination of historical precision and fresh insight. Her essays for the Review so far include considerations of Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and what we’re able to know about childhood in the sixteenth century; a characteristically sharp line on Milton notes that his “nonchronological narrative design” in Paradise Lost “teases us to think, perhaps God is Eve-like.”

Nicholson’s essay on the First Folio, “Theater for a New Audience,” traces the contingencies that have helped to shape our idea of Shakespeare through the big posthumous book of his plays, revealing among other things how our understanding of foundational texts can be enlarged by studying the history of their reception. It also touches on a number of literary questions that could have formed a separate essay on their own, and this week she discussed a few of them with me via e-mail.

Jana Prikryl: We have no evidence that Shakespeare, who died in 1616, had anything to do with the First Folio, which was published in 1623. In your essay you criticize Chris Laoutaris’s Shakespeare’s Book for speculating that the Bard himself instigated the folio project. It’s tempting to imagine something of the sort, since otherwise we have a Shakespeare who was recklessly indifferent to the survival of his own work. What’s your own theory for why he, as you put it, “seems to have had no such ambition”?

Catherine Nicholson: I’m not sure we need to think of Shakespeare as recklessly indifferent to the survival of his plays so much as possessed of a different sense of what survival might mean—firstly in the repertory of the King’s Men, and only secondly in the market for print. And survival within a theatrical repertory often entailed a great deal of change: lines, scenes, characters, and so on might be altered, cut, or added as a script was adapted to the resources of the playing company, the shifting tastes of audiences, and the demands of a particular performance occasion. The playwright might be enlisted in making those changes, or he might have no say at all. Since, at the time, playscripts were the legal property of playing companies, publication happened at a still further remove from authorial control. The version of a play fixed in a printed edition might be the one the playwright intended or preferred, or it might simply be the one the printer could get his hands on. And many, many plays never made it into the hands of any printer: the diary of the Elizabethan impresario Philip Henslowe mentions 280 plays, of which thirty survive in print. Some may have been printed and then lost, but it seems clear that most plays written in Shakespeare’s lifetime lived exclusively in the theaters.

That environment must have shaped Shakespeare’s relationship to his work. No doubt he did sometimes find it frustrating to have his words altered without his say-so. Hamlet’s irritable injunction to the players—“let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”—gives us a glimpse of the sometimes fraught relations between writers and performers, especially those with the most license to improvise on stage. But that speech itself runs quite a bit longer in the 1603 quarto (Q1) than it does in the 1623 folio: in 1603 Hamlet goes on to recite a string of random comic catchphrases exactly like the ones he doesn’t want forced into his own play. I don’t have an opinion on which version of the speech belongs in a modern edition or performance: the folio version is certainly more elegant and concise, but the ironic effect in Q1 is one I cherish; it suggests that Shakespeare was wont to poke fun at any impulse toward authorial control, even his own.

I have a similar response to, say, Sonnet 55, which begins, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme….” That poem channels the voices of Ovid and Horace to make an extravagant claim for the undying power of Shakespeare’s verse, and it’s hard to read today without a shiver of appreciation and awe: he was right (so far)! But when I teach the Sonnets, I always point out to students that these are poems that circulated in manuscript for over a decade before making their way (with or without Shakespeare’s knowledge and approval) into print; moreover, they are in a poetic form that already, in the mid-1590s, was a bit passé and in a vernacular almost no one outside of England spoke or read. The idea that these verses would retain their meaning and value for all time—“Even in the eyes of all posterity/That wear this world out to the ending doom”—has got to be shot through with some pathos, implausibility, or even humor.


Can you talk a bit about the kinds of new readings that became available after the plays moved from performance to the page?

In some sense, the shift from playhouse to page must have seemed like an impoverishment: the media of performance are so vivid and multisensory in comparison to the medium of text. One of my favorite recent works of scholarship on early modern drama is Claire Bourne’s Typographies of Performance in Early Modern England (2020), which reveals how painstaking and ingenious early modern printers were in devising typographic conventions to make playbooks legible both as books and as plays. At the turn of the sixteenth century, the resources for communicating dramatic structure and dramatic action were limited: the first playbook printed in England, a Latin edition of Terence’s Comedies, included an editorial note telling readers what an act and a scene were and urging them to imagine actors moving on- and off-stage as they read. By the time Shakespeare’s plays were being published, printers had devised an incredibly sophisticated repertoire of typographic conventions, from act and scene divisions to speech tags, italicized stage directions, printed marks like dashes and pilcrows (the symbol that marks a paragraph break), and woodcut illustrations, all of which helped readers to imagine the text in performance.

But printing a play also creates all sorts of new opportunities for engaging with it, beyond the shared temporality of performance: reading a bit at a time, for instance; stopping to look something up; marking and returning to a favorite passage; noticing the recurrence of an image, phrase, or word across a wide expanse of text; annotating in the margins or copying passages out into a commonplace book. Add those modes of readerly engagement together, and you begin to get something like literary criticism: an approach to a play that can coordinate character and plot with features of the text that would be hard to pause over or even register in performance.

To what degree Shakespeare anticipated or sought that kind of engagement from readers of his plays is an open question. In his 2003 book Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, the scholar Lukas Erne argues that the length of a number of Shakespeare’s plays suggests he wrote them, at least in part, with print publication in mind, lavishing care on passages he knew would likely never make it on stage. On the other hand, maybe the length of the plays as written reveals that Shakespeare was far less precious about his own words than we tend to be; he knew they might be cut and adapted for performance, and he wrote freely in expectation of that winnowing. In either case, the looser, nonlinear, potentially discontinuous temporality of reading allows for all sorts of lingering and reading across or against the narrative grain that I, at least, can’t fathom doing without. And the First Folio encourages that kind of reading—not simply of each play, but of the plays as a dynamic and interrelated whole.

In the first piece you wrote for the Review, on Edmund Spenser, you called The Faerie Queene “the emblematic textual commodity of an age in which book ownership expanded from the domain of aristocrats and scholars to become a bourgeois expression of taste.” When the First Folio was published twenty-six years later, would you say it was comparable in status?

I’d guess that both the 1590/1596 quartos of The Faerie Queene and the 1611 folio of Spenser’s Works were more immediately recognizable to readers and book buyers as prestige literary commodities. The full title of the latter—The Faerie Queen: The Shepheardes Calender: Together with the other Works of England’s Arch-Poët, Edm. Spenser: Collected into one Volume—takes for granted both the author’s preeminence among English poets and the value of assembling his writings into a unified corpus. Contrast that with the mocking reception in some quarters of the 1616 folio of Ben Jonson’s Works (“Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mistery lurke?” inquired one anonymous wit, “What others call a play you call a work”), which suggests the difficulty seventeenth-century readers still had in conceiving of vernacular stage plays as literature.

But there’s a nearly seventy-year gap between the first and second folios of Spenser’s Works, while the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays appears just nine years after the first, in 1632. And by the middle of the eighteenth century, their fortunes have decisively crossed: The Faerie Queene is, increasingly, a book to own—or, perhaps, to study—but not to read, while editions and adaptations of Shakespeare sell in a wide variety of formats and at a range of price points. In that sense, too, textual fixity or bibliographic iconicity isn’t the same as influence or survival: change remains the lifeblood of literary tradition.


I don’t want to give away the brilliant ending of your piece, but its reading of The Tempest made me think of other times in the plays when characters rely overmuch on textual sources: the several letters intercepted in King Lear, the fatefully undelivered letter from Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, the comically bad poems Orlando pins to trees in As You Like It…. Is it too much to say that it seems, in Shakespeare’s worlds, as if things written down are inferior to those acted out?

I don’t know about inferior—Shakespeare is keenly alert to the perils and pitfalls of dramatic reenactment—but certainly subject to error and misapprehension. Sometimes those misapprehensions are disastrous; other times (I’m thinking of poor Malvolio deciphering what he believes to be a love letter from Olivia, in Twelfth Night) they are deliciously comic; occasionally, as with the letter that mysteriously surfaces in the final moments of The Merchant of Venice, restoring Antonio’s lost fortune, they are redemptive. Like Spenser, Shakespeare seems to delight in scripting encounters that anticipate the possibility of his own misreading by others, and misreading is not always figured as a catastrophe; sometimes it offers the wayward path to a happy ending.

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