Shakespeare Only

Overview

Three decades of controversy in Shakespeare studies can be summed up in a single question: Was Shakespeare one of a kind? On one side of the debate are the Shakespeare lovers, the bardolatrists, who insist on Shakespeare’s timeless preeminence as an author. On the other side are the theater historians who view modern claims of Shakespeare’s uniqueness as a distortion of his real professional life. 
 
In Shakespeare Only, Knapp draws ...

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Shakespeare Only

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Overview

Three decades of controversy in Shakespeare studies can be summed up in a single question: Was Shakespeare one of a kind? On one side of the debate are the Shakespeare lovers, the bardolatrists, who insist on Shakespeare’s timeless preeminence as an author. On the other side are the theater historians who view modern claims of Shakespeare’s uniqueness as a distortion of his real professional life. 
 
In Shakespeare Only, Knapp draws on an extraordinary array of historical evidence to reconstruct Shakespeare’s authorial identity as Shakespeare and his contemporaries actually understood it.  He argues that Shakespeare tried to adapt his own singular talent and ambition to the collaborative enterprise of drama by imagining himself as uniquely embodying the diverse, fractious energies of the popular theater. Rewriting our current histories of authorship as well as Renaissance drama, Shakespeare Only recaptures a sense of the creative force that mass entertainment exerted on Shakespeare and that Shakespeare exerted on mass entertainment.

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Editorial Reviews

CHOICE
2010 Outstanding Academic Title, CHOICE

 

Clio
“Knapp’s intriguing thesis is that Shakespeare consciously sought a singular status as an author by going against the dominant early modern elitism. Shakespeare, in this reading, understands that modern capitalist necessity of having a broad base for commercial and artistic success.”
Literature and History
“The readings of the plays . . .  are wide-ranging, sometimes iconoclastic, and, in many instances, fascinating.”
J. Modern Language Quarterly
Shakespeare Only is a major revisionary study. This historically contextualized account of Shakespeare’s sense of authorship alters our understanding not only of him and his chief reval, Ben Johnson (who gets illuminating treatment throughout as Shakespeare’s foil), but also, more broadly, of the changing nature of English Renaissance dramatic authorship. Jeffrey Knapp argues that Shakespeare, embracing the commercial theater in which he was playwright, actor, and stockholder, staked his claim to greatness on a literary versatility attuned to his diverse audience. As befits a book on Shakespeare’s masterful variety, Knapp brings to bear a range of scholarly virtues rarely found together: an imaginative yet healthily skeptical approach to historical evidence, a command of theoretical debates with an eye alert to obfuscations and unwarranted assumptions, and an extremely subtle critical handling of literary texts and their implications.

— Joshua Scodel

Stephen Greenblatt
“Jeffrey Knapp’s Shakespeare Only is a decisive and brilliant advance in our understanding of Shakespeare and of his literary culture. The book sweeps away many wide-spread misconceptions about Renaissance authorship and provides detailed evidence for the ways Elizabethan and Jacobean readers and audiences actually thought about the creators of the plays they enjoyed. Above all, Knapp provides a remarkable, deeply compelling account of Shakespeare’s own strangely paradoxical conception of authorship. That conception, Knapp shows, entailed in the interest of ambition the abandonment of dreams of absolute sovereignty and an unprecedented plunge into collaboration and commonness.”
Richard Halpern
“Was Shakespeare one of a kind? The pursuit of this question leads Jeffrey Knapp on a wide-ranging study of Renaissance authorship. Amassing a formidable array of fact and argument, Shakespeare Only takes issue with the collaborative model of playwrighting currently in vogue among historicist critics, and argues persuasively that the single-author paradigm established itself in the theater earlier and more forcefully than has been thought. Knapp shows that the much-maligned ‘author-function’ plays a vital role not only in the production of Renaissance drama but in the plots of the plays themselves, where themes of death, resurrection, and inheritance frequently allegorize the vicissitudes of authorship. This is a sharply-argued intervention in current critical debates.”
Julia Reinhard Lupton
“One of the profession’s finest historicists takes on one of that school’s most precious credos: the tenet that authorship as we know it did not exist in Shakespeare’s England. Knapp does not reject the historicist enterprise, however, in favor of an unreformed Bardolatory, but rather renders more vivid and precise our picture of just what dramatic authorship was and could be in the Renaissance. With erudition, tact, and the deepest sympathy for both the poetry and the praxis of England’s greatest playwright, Knapp delivers us a Shakespeare whose experiments with different authorial models, including collaborative ones, helped shape the form and pressure of his plays.”
Modern Language Quarterly - Joshua Scodel
Shakespeare Only is a major revisionary study. This historically contextualized account of Shakespeare’s sense of authorship alters our understanding not only of him and his chief rival, Ben Johnson (who gets illuminating treatment throughout as Shakespeare’s foil), but also, more broadly, of the changing nature of English Renaissance dramatic authorship. Jeffrey Knapp argues that Shakespeare, embracing the commercial theater in which he was playwright, actor, and stockholder, staked his claim to greatness on a literary versatility attuned to his diverse audience. As befits a book on Shakespeare’s masterful variety, Knapp brings to bear a range of scholarly virtues rarely found together: an imaginative yet healthily skeptical approach to historical evidence, a command of theoretical debates with an eye alert to obfuscations and unwarranted assumptions, and an extremely subtle critical handling of literary texts and their implications.”
Choice

“Overturns the new historicist position that authorial production by a singular individual is a mid-18th-century notion . . . But Knapp's destruction of this new historicist idea pales by comparison with his readings of Shakespeare's work . . . in which he shows that Shakespeare's writing is oriented around authorship. Most striking is Knapp's revelation that Shakespeare empowers his own authorial identity by repeatedly emphasizing his shame at being an author . . . Essential.”

Sixteenth-Century Journal
 “In his timely and persuasive new book, Knapp deftly charts the waters between the Scylla and Charybdis of Shakespeare’s authorial identity. . . . Knapp’s attention to detail, astute research, and careful synthesis of late twentieth-century scholarship is impressive. . . . Shakespeare Only in invaluable for its clear retelling of the history of Shakespeare studies over the past thirty years and its reconsideration of single authorship.”
Choice
“Overturns the new historicist position that authorial production by a singular individual is a mid-18th-century notion . . . But Knapp's destruction of this new historicist idea pales by comparison with his readings of Shakespeare's work . . . in which he shows that Shakespeare's writing is oriented around authorship. Most striking is Knapp's revelation that Shakespeare empowers his own authorial identity by repeatedly emphasizing his shame at being an author . . . Essential.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226445724
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Knapp is Chancellor's Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England.

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Read an Excerpt

Shakespeare Only


By JEFFREY KNAPP

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-44571-7


Chapter One

Our Humble Author

What can mine own praise to mine own self bring? "SHAKESPEARE, Sonnet 39"

In her foreword to a recent neuroscientific appreciation of Shakespeare entitled The Bard on the Brain (2003), the writer Diane Ackerman affirms "the simple, universally accepted truth" that in terms of "artistic genius" Shakespeare "stands alone." "There's Shakespeare," she explains, "followed by a very large gap, and then all the other English writers who have ever lived." The many theater scholars who would regard such praise of Shakespeare as exaggeration or mystification—as bardolatry—might cite several grounds for disputing Ackerman's appraisal. First, they might argue, Ackerman has not read all the other English writers who have ever lived and so is not in a good position to pass judgment on all of them. Second, ranking Shakespeare above Chaucer, Milton, or Dickens, say, might seem like comparing apples to oranges. Shakespeare wrote no collection of tales, no epic, no novel. He did publish two long erotic poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, but neither is regularly considered to be better "by a very large gap" than Marlowe's Hero and Leander. The same might be said of Shakespeare's lyric poetry in comparison to Donne's, or Keats's, or Wordsworth's. Only as a playwright, theater scholars might concede, does Shakespeare appear to outstrip his rivals. But even this was not always thought to be the case. Comparing the record of allusions to Shakespeare and to Jonson in the seventeenth century, particularly the references to each dramatist "as a standard of poetic or dramatic greatness," G. E. Bentley found that "the evidence of Jonson's preeminence in the estimates of the time is overwhelming. In every single decade of the century he is praised more often than Shakespeare," and the total number of allusions to him throughout the century, by Bentley's count, "is nearly three times as great" as the total number of allusions to Shakespeare. According to the statistics Bentley compiles, it was Jonson, not Shakespeare, who was the Shakespeare of his day.

Jonson himself thought otherwise. In his elegy "To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us," which appeared in the first edition of Shakespeare's collected plays, the First Folio, in 1623, Jonson set the standard of adoration for all future Shakespeare lovers:

Soul of the Age! The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage! My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie A little further, to make thee a room: Thou art a Moniment, without a tomb, And art alive still, while thy Book doth live, And we have wits to read, and praise to give. .................... And though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek, From thence to honor thee, I would not seek For names; but call forth thund'ring Aeschylus, Euripedes, and Sophocles to us, Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead, To life again, to hear thy Buskin tread, And shake a Stage: Or, when thy Socks were on, Leave thee alone, for the comparison Of all, that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show, To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe. He was not of an age, but for all time!

Even Jonson finds it difficult to compare Shakespeare to nondramatic authors, abandoning the effort in the same line of verse in which he gets it under way: after the poets Chaucer and Spenser comes the playwright Beaumont, and then it's nothing but playwrights for the rest of the poem. But the more Jonson evaluates Shakespeare in relation to other dramatists, the more his enthusiasm for him grows. First Shakespeare is the "Soul of the Age," then he is "for all time." Rising from the tomb of past English worthies, he takes the stage "alone" before the greatest classical playwrights and then ascends to the heavens as the "Star of Poets," the "one" "to whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe." Bardolatrous seems the right term for praise that treats Shakespeare as a kind of Christ.

Such extravagant tribute from the man whom Bentley identifies as Shakespeare's chief dramatic rival in the seventeenth century would appear to weaken Bentley's historicizing claim that Shakespeare's contemporaries thought less of him than we do. But recent historicists have actually intensified Bentley's critique of Shakespeare's preeminence as a dramatist. Where Bentley turned to the historical record for proof that the modern perception of Shakespeare's incomparability should be seen as relative, theater scholars now appeal to that record for proof that the very notion of an incomparable dramatist should be seen as relative, and, what's more, as anachronistic when applied to Shakespeare. Their basic claim, as I explained in my introduction, is that commercial Renaissance plays were generated by acting companies, not authors—and if the author was a later development for these historicists, even more so was the author who stands alone. In the introduction to his Companion to Shakespeare (1999), for instance, David Kastan distances his volume from "the enormous culture investment in the idea of [Shakespeare's] unique genius" by arguing that the "concept" was "virtually invented for" Shakespeare after his death. As Kastan explains at greater length in Shakespeare and the Book (2001), the process of invention began with the First Folio, which "might be said to be the creator of Shakespeare." In his own lifetime, Kastan claims, Shakespeare never "actively sought" the "role" of "author," let alone the title of "genius." On the contrary, he "was largely indifferent to such individuation, comfortably working in the collaborative ethos of the theater." Not until Jonson and the First Folio fabricated a literary rather than theatrical conception of Shakespeare, Kastan maintains, did Shakespeare begin to emerge "as the towering figure of individual genius" he now represents in our culture, "never ... having sought his greatness but having it thrust upon him seven years after he died."

For Kastan, in other words, the notion of unique genius is worse than anachronistic as a description of Shakespeare the theatrical collaborator: it is antithetical to that professional identity and therefore ultimately antitheatrical as well. But the concept had already been applied to Shakespeare thirty years before Jonson's poem, in the earliest surviving reference to Shakespeare as a working dramatist. Where Jonson praised Shakespeare for transcending his professional milieu, Robert Greene in his 1592 Groats-Worth of Witte lambasted Shakespeare as a stage-bound "Johannes fac totum," a Johnny-do-all laboring under the absurd delusion that he could emulate real poets. And yet Greene ascribed to Shakespeare the same desire for exclusive mastery that Jonson supposedly foisted upon Shakespeare in his elegy: according to Greene, Shakespeare was "in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

The ambition itself was not what bothered Greene. Earlier in the Groats-worth, he had described himself as "an Arch-play-making-poet," and he later reminded his fellow dramatists that the players had relied on "none of you" so much as they had on "me." But Shakespeare and his fellow actors had forced Greene out of the picture, and within two decades Shakespeare's purported dream of himself as the only "Shake-scene" would in certain irrefutable respects come true. Unlike every other playwright of the period, as I emphasized in my introduction, Shakespeare would make a fortune from his theater work, become by far the most published dramatist of his day, and own a share in both his acting company and the theaters where he played. For Bentley, the sheer range of Shakespeare's professional responsibilities made him "the most complete man of the theater in his time," but for Greene such multitasking proved that Shakespeare was worse than a hack: he was also a grasping monopolist with no sense of obligation to his collaborators. Although the players had once depended on Greene so mightily, Shakespeare's ability to write as well as act meant they could now cast off Greene, and Greene warned his fellow dramatists that, no matter how "beholding" the players might be to them, these other playwrights would soon find themselves "forsaken," too.

Greene's caustic appraisal of Shakespeare as someone who thought he could do it all and do it better than anyone else leads me to the questions I hope to answer in this chapter about how Shakespeare actually saw himself as an author. Historicists such as Kastan have crucially highlighted the strangeness of bardolatrous attempts to abstract Shakespeare from the world of mass entertainment in which and for which he wrote his plays. But their corrective emphasis on mass entertainment has also misled these historicists into claiming that a model of singular authorship postdated Shakespeare, when it was in fact the conventional view of playwriting throughout the Renaissance, as Shakespeare well knew. The most distinguished apologist for the stage in Shakespeare's time—Alberico Gentili, Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford—begins his 1593 defense of dramatists by importing the figure of the master poet into the theater: "When Vergil entered the theater," Gentili writes, "the whole [universus] Roman people rose to its feet, revering him as if he were Augustus." Rather than lose himself among the theater's masses, Virgil as Gentili imagines him turns the masses into one, "universus," in their universal admiration for his literary supremacy. But Virgil was no playwright: as soon as Gentili begins to discuss theatrical poets specifically, he is forced to admit that Roman law attached "the mark of infamy" to their profession. And then the playwright's dependence on actors—"vile" actors, Gentili calls them—further disrupts the exclusive identification of the theatrical scene with the imperial figure of the dramatist. Yet the actors also provide the dramatist a convenient scapegoat for the theatrical infamy that would otherwise taint him: "poets can be held in honor," Gentili argues, "although the actor, their voice and mouthpiece [vox, et os], may remain unhonored. Agents are servile [servilia]; so we use the mind to command, the body to serve. And indeed, the authors supply the mind, the actors the body."

As both author and actor, Shakespeare was in no position to profit from such stigmatization of actors. But he could—however incompletely—embody a unity among the different agencies at work in a play that Gentili never even considers. I will argue in this chapter that, just as Shakespeare bent his stage identity to the conventional model of the kingly poet, so he also bent that literary model to the actuality of his "vile" stage work. Shakespeare, in other words, theatricalized the idea of the poet, and to show how he did it I will turn to the writings of his that most plainly adopt an autobiographical as well as literary pose: his sonnets. Shakespeare's self-portrait in the sonnets has long been recognized as unconventional, both in the homoerotic youngman sonnets at the start and the misogynistic dark-lady sonnets at the end. The dark-lady sonnets in particular strive for a singularity of effect that, as I shall maintain, more nearly approaches Greene's conception of Shakespeare than Ackerman's: in these sonnets, Shakespeare seems to believe that he can achieve a kind of uniqueness as a theatrical professional only when he can imagine and portray himself as the very principle of the theater's vulgarity and commonness.

Prince of Poets

Echoing Jonson's celebration of Shakespeare as the star of poets, another commender in the First Folio, Hugh Holland, calls Shakespeare the "Poets' King." This royal figure of speech for Shakespeare's incomparability was no innovative trope of praise: Petrarch had been crowned with laurel nearly three centuries earlier. And naturally, the notion of a literary monarch was encouraged by the political monarchism of the day, gaining a special currency from the literary ambitions of the only two English monarchs Shakespeare ever knew: Elizabeth I, whom Spenser in 1591 proclaimed "most peerless Prince, most peerless Poëtress," and James I, whom Michael Drayton in 1600 hailed as "Of Kings a Poet, and the Poets' King." Homer Prince of Poets was the title that George Chapman gave his partial translation of The Iliad in 1609, just as Abraham Fleming had named Virgil the Prince of All Latine Poets in the title of his 1589 translation of The Eclogues and The Georgics. Such honors were not limited to the classics or to actual kings. During Shakespeare's lifetime, the literary crown was passed back and forth among many of his contemporaries: Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, William Warner, George Buchanan, Samuel Daniel. Jonson repeatedly tried to crown himself: in the 1601 prologue to Cynthia's Revels, for instance, he asked the discerning spectator and reader to "cast" the "piercing rays" of their judgment around his poetry "as a crown" that the poet would consider more meritorious than "honor'd Bays." Jonson's disciples heard and obeyed: in a 1638 collection of memorial verses for him, they hailed him as "th'only Genius of the Times," "Poet of princes, Prince of Poets," "Great Jonson King of English Poetry." Perhaps John Taylor (1612) said it best to Jonson during Jonson's and Shakespeare's lifetimes: "all the Worthies of this worthy Land,/Admires thy wondrous all-admired worth."

Bentley may be right that Jonson was more often compared to a king in the seventeenth century than Shakespeare was, but he does not adequately acknowledge the incompleteness or partiality of such praise as a measure of "poetic or dramatic greatness." Almost inevitably, the royal trope distances the poet's value from any popular judgment on it. Having declared James "a God of Poets, and a King of Men," Sir William Alexander imagined his monarch as "ravish'd still above the vulgar sort." So Spenser envisioned Elizabeth as the "one only" who could rescue poetry from the clutches of "the base vulgar." And that is how Jonson understood his literary kingship in Cynthia's Revels: "loath to prostitute" his talent "to every vulgar, and adulterate brain," he denounced "popular applause" as the "foamy praise, that drops from common jaws." In lines from Horace that Jonson borrowed for the epigraph to his own first folio in 1616, Jonson reminded himself not to "labor so that the mob [turba] may wonder at you" but rather to "be content with few readers." Facing this epigraph was a portrait of Jonson crowned with laurels.

Luckily, Jonson's plays were often unpopular enough to grant him just the rarefied audience he preferred. After the failure of Sejanus in 1605, Edmund Bolton expressed his "indignation" at "the People's beastly rage" against Jonson; when Catiline failed in 1611, Francis Beaumont congratulated Jonson for not having "itched after the wild applause / Of common people"; and when The New Inn failed in 1629, Thomas Carew exhorted Jonson to "let others glut on the extorted praise / Of vulgar breath"—"their hiss," Thomas Randolph added, "is thy applause." Not all contemporary critics agreed, however, that pleasing the few was the best measure of dramatic success. Calling Sejanus "irksome" and Catiline "tedious," Leonard Digges in the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems (1640) admitted that Volpone and The Alchemist had justly won Jonson "a crown of Bays": "Yet these sometimes, even at a friend's desire / Acted, have scarce defrayed the Seacoal fire/ And door-keepers: when let but Falstaff come,/ Hal, Poins, the rest[,] you scarce shall have a room / All is so pester'd." Jonson himself acknowledged the force of Shakespeare's popularity. Having asserted that Shakespeare's "writings" are "such,/ As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much," Jonson insisted "'tis true, and all men's suffrage." But for his own more rebarbative writings Jonson prized the measure of the one over the all, as in his epistle to Volpone (1607), where he scorned those who try to "make themselves a name with the Multitude."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Shakespeare Only by JEFFREY KNAPP Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface   

Acknowledgments  

Introduction

1   Our Humble Author  

2   The Author Staged  

3   The Author Sacrificed  

4   The Author Revived  

Epilogue  

Notes  

Works Cited  

Index  

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