The dominant scholarly view of Shakespeare in the last decades has been that of the consummate “man of the theatre” who acted in, was a shareholder in, and prepared acting scripts for the theatrical company to which he belonged. As a consequence, Shakespeareans still primarily place him in the context of the theatrical culture of his day. Nevertheless, we are increasingly coming to recognize that he deserves to be analyzed in similar detail in the context of early modern English textual culture. Drawing on cutting-edge research tools, in particular on databases which, thanks to “the digital turn,” have started transforming the study of English literature, The Textual Life of William Shakespeare, 1593-1623 will be the first book-length study that aims at a comprehensive analysis of this kind.
The question this study thus tries to investigate is the following: in what ways were Shakespeare’s texts printed, published, circulated, read, and appropriated in his own time, more specifically in the period from 1593 (date of publication of Venus and Adonis, his first text in print) to 1623 (date of publication of thirty-six of his plays in the “First Folio”)? A well-informed answer to this question presupposes familiarity with the early modern London book trade. What is the textual culture within which Shakespeare’s texts appeared and circulated, and how does the former throw light on the latter? Shakespeare’s texts were published, republished, excerpted, anthologized, annotated and quoted. They appeared in books of various formats (quarto, octavo, folio), with different kinds of title pages and other paratextual material, were printed according to certain early modern conventions and read and appropriated in various contexts. If the early history of Shakespeare’s text in print is studied alongside the treatment other authors received and in the context of the book market more generally, what does it tell us about Shakespeare, the poet and dramatist, and about “Shakespeare”, a label with increasing cultural and economic cachet in the book market? To what extent is it true that Shakespeare was one author among many whose eighteenth-century canonization was in no way anticipated by the bibliographical reception he received in his own time? Or, to the extent that it is not true, what are the features of the printing, dissemination, and reception of Shakespeare’s texts that anticipate the extraordinary status Shakespeare was to acquire posthumously?