Shakespeare writing fair: The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700

Last Friday I attended a conference organised by the University of London School of Advanced Study to celebrate the imminent launch of a great new online resource, the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700. This will supersede the printed Index of English Literary Manuscripts, published in four large volumes beginning thirty years ago. Now only the proof-checking and final alteration phases remain before it is made freely available on the internet.

The mastermind of this work is Peter Beal, who has personally examined the majority of the 35,000 documents listed. He’s expanded the number of authors from 123 to 237, over 60 of whom are women compared to just one in the original Index.   The technology will ensure the Catalogue is fully available and will also allow for more flexible searching.

 During the day papers were delivered by many scholars who had examined manuscripts featuring in the Catalogue including Queen Elizabeth’s Italian letters, the poems of Ann Finch, and a commonplace book held at the Somerset Heritage Centre.

 Grace Ioppolo spoke about documents relating to Shakespeare, difficult because none of Shakespeare’s manuscripts have been found in spite of three centuries of searching. To date, apart from the few signatures, only a few pages of the play Sir Thomas More are thought to be in Shakespeare’s hand, but it is still impossible to be certain. Almost more mysteriously, why are there no presentation copies of Shakespeare’s plays made for wealthy patrons by professional scribes? Employing someone to make copies was expensive: Edward Alleyn paid for legal documents to be copied, paying up to a shilling (5p) a sheet, twice the cost of a printed copy of a single play in Quarto.

I particularly enjoyed Steven May’s paper on Samuel Watts’s anthology, a commonplace book mostly compiled between 1615 and 1622. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Lodge’s Rosalinde (a source for As You Like It) Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander are frequently quoted in this collection which focuses on courtship and romantic love.

 One entry in the anthology is a piece of text containing gaps where it appears the name of the lady being wooed is to be inserted. There’s a direct parallel here with The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Falstaff writes identical love letters to both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Unfortunately for him, they compare notes: “I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names -sure, more!- and these are of the second edition”, says Mistress Page. “Why, this is the very same…the very hand…the very words!” replies Mistress Ford.


Joseph Fiennes in the act of composition in the film Shakespeare in Love

Although we don’t have any of Shakespeare’s own letters, 111 letters feature in his plays, only five of which don’t contain any letters. These include love letters and poems like Don Armado’s letter to Jaquenetta and the four poems written to the French girls in Love’s Labour’s Lost, letters written to deceive, such as Edmund’s forged letter in King Lear which persuades Gloucester that Edgar plans to murder him, and undelivered letters like the one Friar Laurence writes to Romeo explaining Juliet’s sleeping draught. The dedications to the Earl of Southampton printed in Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are the nearest we get to letters written by Shakespeare as himself.  Alan Stewart’s recent book Shakespeare’s Letters is an admirable study of the subject.

 One of the great benefits of the Index has been the growth of research using original documents in the thirty years since it began to be published. The online catalogue will continue to open up study of these original materials. Perhaps there are still documents somewhere relating to Shakespeare just waiting to be discovered.

 I’ll be writing a second blog based on this conference later in the week.

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One Response to Shakespeare writing fair: The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700

  1. Great news! Looking forward to hearing about the conference. I love the look at letters in Shakespeare’s plays. As I always say, the man is in the works!

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