Shakespeare and the Composite Text

  • Douglas Bruster


Literary works of the English Renaissance tend to be unusually copious—thick, that is, with quotations of other texts, as well as with material from the world outside their pages.1 Such copia, of course, has often attracted the attention of new historicism and other varieties of criticism interested in exploring the cultural contexts of Renaissance literature. In these critical modes, however, the literary and social materials of various texts are important not as sources of the texts in question but rather as potential sources for critical “thick descriptions” of those texts, descriptions that have become almost a separate literary genre in their own right. Obviously, the field has benefited a great deal from the cultural turn in literary study and from the thick descriptions that have accompanied this turn. But what often gets left out by thick descriptions interest in literary contexts is the relation between newer forms of criticism—criticism usefully gathered by the coinage “cultural historicism”2—and an older kind of formalist criticism that served as an unspoken, and perhaps unconscious, model for it: source study.


Literary Text Symbolic Capital Thick Description Source Study Hard Meat 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    On what I am calling the “thickness” of Renaissance texts, see Linda Woodbridge, “Patchwork: Piecing the Early Modern Mind in England’s First Century of Print Culture,” English Literary Renaissance 23 (1993): 5–45. I have discussed this phenomenon at more length in Quoting Shakespeare: Form and Culture in Early Modern Drama (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); see, especially, 13–51, 203–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    On “cultural historicism,” see Albert H. Tricomi. Reading Tudor-Stuart Texts Through Cultural Historicism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Heather Dubrow, A Happier Eden: The Politics of Marriage in the Stuart Epithalamium (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 266.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Robert S. Miola, “Othello Furens,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 49–64;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. On the changing face of source study, see also Miola’s “Shakespeare and His Sources: Observations on the Critical History of Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 69–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 5.
    See Andrew Gurr, “Intertextuality at Windsor,” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 189–200;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Claire McEachern, “Fathering Himself: A Source Study of Shakespeare’s Feminism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 269–290;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Eric S. Mallin, Inscribing the Time: Shakespeare and the End of Elizabethan England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  10. Frank Whigham, Seizures of the Will in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. 67–74;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Heather James, Shakespeares Troy: Drama, Politics, and the Translation of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Stephen J. Lynch, Shakespearean Intertextuality: Studies in Selected Sources and Plays (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998);Google Scholar
  13. Richard Knowles, “Cordelias Return,” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999): 33–50;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Grace Tiffany, “Shakespeare’s Dionysian Prince: Drama, Politics, and the Athenian’ History Play,” Renaissance Quarterly 52 (1999): 366–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 7.
    See Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 11–13.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    G. W. Pigman III, “Neo-Latin Imitation of the Latin Classics,” in Latin Poetry and the Classical Tradition: Essays in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Peter Goodman and Oswyn Murray, Oxford-Warburg Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 199–210; 199, 200.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    For a cogent articulation of this position, see the anonymous reader cited in Annabel Patterson, Hermogenes and the Renaissance: Seven Ideas of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), xi.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    Laurence Lerner, “Ovid and the Elizabethans,” in Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 121–135; 122.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    On these structures, see A. Kent Hieatt, Short Time’s Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Spenser’s “Epithalamion” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960);Google Scholar
  20. and Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    See, for example, J. J. M. Tobin, “Hamlet and Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem,” The Aligarh Journal of English Studies 6 (1981): 158–167; “Nashe and The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Notes and Queries 2& (1981): 122–123; “Macbeth and Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem” The Aligarh Journal of English Studies 7 (1982): 72–78; “Nashe and Richard II” American Notes & Queries 24 (1985): 5–7; and “Nashe and Shakespeare: Some Further Borrowings,” Notes and Queries 39 (1992): 309–320.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1910), vol. 2: 217, 227.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    See Douglas Bruster, “Teaching the Tragi-comedy of Romeo and Juliet,” in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, ed. Maurice Hunt (New York: MLA, 2000), 59–68. The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in Romeo and Juliet “may explain why Shakespeare chose to emphasize, in his opening chorus, the tragic ending of the play: without this forewarning, audiences and readers unacquainted with the source story—and perhaps even those who knew it—could well resent the playwright for arbitrarily enforcing a cruel ending on the story’s protagonists” (60).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Andrew Gurr, ed., King Henry V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 6–16; 15.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    On the epic tenor of the play—and especially, of the Chorus—see Albert H. Tolman, “The Epic Character of Henry V,” Modern Language Notes 34 (1919): 7–16;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. John Dover Wilson, ed., King Henry V, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947);Google Scholar
  27. and Edward I. Berry, “‘True Things and Mock’ries’: Epic and History in Henry V,” JEGP 78 (1979): 1–16.Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    See, for example, Alwin Thaler, Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney: The Influence of “The Defense of Poesy” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947),CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. and J. H. Walter, ed., Henry V, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1954), xv–xvi.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    See Gary Taylor, ed., Henry V (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 52–58.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    Here I am thinking about a tradition of scholarship best evidenced, perhaps, by Thomas Greenes The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). Greene’s influential book concentrates too exclusively, I believe, on prestigious authors and texts and fails to take into account the enormous range of reading and borrowing in the English Renaissance. Greene, for instance, mentions Nashe once in The Light in Troy, but only in a list of authors who inherited a mundus of “semiotic reserves” (20).Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    For the locus classicus of “conflict” theories of literary relations, see Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); for criticism of Renaissance drama based on such a model, see Bruster, Quoting Shakespeare, 38–40, and n. 60, 221–22.Google Scholar
  33. 32.
    Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1991), 383.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Mark David Rasmussen 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Douglas Bruster

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations