Spring 2022: Shakespeare (un)edited


  1. Introduction
  2. Distant reading Shakespeare: Our First Case, the First Folio
  3. Our First Case, the First Folio (page 2)
  4. Our First Case, the First Folio (page 3)
  5. Grammatical context
  6. Case study: Rape of Lucrece
  7. Observations on the Shakespearean actor network
  8. Conclusion & References

What is curious about Shakespeare (1564-1616) is that not all of his writings were published in print during his lifetime. A collection of his plays, the First Folio, was only published in 1623 by John Heminges and Henry Condell. Moreover, all theatres were closed by law in 1642, which we could imagine to have a huge effect on a playwright. Still, the popularity if Shakespeare remained, and today he is known as the Bard.

How did this happen?

Introduction – Shakespeare’s afterlife in print

While there has been extensive research on Shakespeare and his reception at his time, and more recently on the book trade that strongly influenced the canonization process (see e.g., Depledge & Kirwan, 2017; Erne, 2013; Massai 2007), not such focus has been put on how Shakespeare was read at that time (Roberts, 2002). This leaves us with a gap on how Shakespeare was used, read and spread beyond the stage. The attribution of even  spurious publications to Shakespeare implies that his name had market value – what mattered the most to book publishers and sellers –, and that is why publishers competed for him (Erne, 2013; Depledge, 2017). Shakespeare was already the most popular author in terms of reprints in the early 17th century, although he later lost that position (Erne, 2013, ch. 1). However, his popularity began to increase again in the 18th century (Depledge, 2017). However, as the concept of authorship was more fluid in the 17th century, many of his words were also borrowed and used by other authors (Erne, 2013). Thus, a great amount of this reuse has not been attributed to him. Beyond the attributed reprints, this more subtle reuse of his texts can further enlighten us on the canonization process.

Today, it is easy to give examples of famous Shakespeare quotes, and this kind of reuse is what makes his name still to circulate among us – although our knowledge of Shakespeare might not otherwise be so deep.

This is why we are interested in the reuse of Shakespeare, and how printed works, other than his plays themselves, shaped the (re)invention of a national Bard. With new, digital humanities methods, it is possible to digitally trace all his reuse and by studying that, we aim to give new insights into how Shakespeare was read, perceived and reused in the centuries after his lifetime.

In this post, we will first introduce you to the historical context of Shakespeare, shortly talk about our data and methods, and then present our findings on how Shakespeare was reused in the 17th and 18th century. Starting with a more distant and general overview, we zoom in to different themes, exploring how Shakespeare was used to establish English grammar, and how even a single poem can be read and interpreted in various ways. Lastly, we present some observations of the book trade network around Shakespeare, which gives an extra-textual viewpoint to the canonization process.

Historical context

Writers, poets and artists who are popular and famous for their work will get a statue after their death, and their works are used as examples and material to be worked on. Shakespeare on top of them is one of the most memorable playwrights, poet and an English man whose name is still relevant in literature classes even after 400 years of his death. The real question is that why Shakespeare’s works are reused even now like his works are published in last decades? One of the aspects to study a poet like Shakespeare is by going back to the time, situation and the historical context that he has lived in. Was it a factor for him to be that successful and appreciated or it was solely because of himself? It is obvious that he has lived, wrote his works in a period which is called Elizabethan age. This age or period starts from 1558 to 1603. This period can be a great factor for the effectiveness of his works and for their success. This period that he has lived in is also called golden age. The word golden in here implies that it was a great period. The period was a time of enormous progress, steadiness, and state pride. Throughout Elizabethan age, England grew politically and economically. So, this was a better environment for ordinary people as well to have a better life and this was great for Shakespeare in a way that he had a better life and could provide his time to work on literature and what he was good at, also people were in a good life to be an audience to his works and reader to his poems. People’s perception of the plays by him and other playwrights was so active during this age. Another important thing to be discussed is the queen Elizabeth I’s interest in plays and drama. It was a great help and motivation toward his works. Queen Elizabeth has watched Shakespeare’s plays many times and she has liked it when they were acted and played for her. So, the context, situation and environment generally were friendly with Shakespeare and his talent. Except for the patrons that were claiming that theaters played a major role in the widespread of the plague. However, again queen Elizabeth I stood with the art, and literature and supported the entertainment during her time on the reign. This made a great environment for Shakespeare to make such great works that he has and reused after his death until nowadays.