Geoffrey Bullough’s The Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1957-75) established a vocabulary and a method for linking Shakespeare’s plays with a series of texts on which they were thought to be based. Bullough also established a critical methodology that depends upon locating a hierarchy of texts which, when identified, can take us back both to the mystery and to the moments of creation. Shakespeare’s resources revisits and interrogates the methodology that has prevailed since then and proposes a number of radical departures from Bullough’s model.
The tacitly accepted linear model of ‘source’ and ‘influence’ that critics and scholars have wrestled with is here reconceptualised as a dynamic process in which texts, and non-textual narratives, interact and generate meanings that domesticated versions of intertextuality do not adequately account for. Shakespeare, the drama to which he contributed, and the culture of which he was a part existed on the cusp of the emergence of a relatively new and rapidly developing technology: print culture, and some of the material to which he had access existed in the receding oral culture of the period. In the present, the rapid development of electronic media and the impact that it is having on our ways of articulating experience and our thinking, while not being identical to the early modern crisis in communication, sharpens our sense of how we generate, receive and circulate narratives, and prompts us to look back to historical moments in which sensibilities were transformed.
Our own emphasis on ‘reading’ has encouraged us to think that this was a universal activity, although the comic YouTube account of the encounter between a medieval monk, and a contemporary reader attempting to convince him of the advantages of ‘the book’ as a convenient receptacle for information along with the skills necessary to extract it, reminds us of what we now take for granted.
Shakespeare’s resources seeks to uncover and explore questions of exactly how Shakespeare ‘read’, what he read, the practical conditions in which narratives were encountered, and how he re-deployed earlier versions that he had used in his later work. It seeks to depart from the method of simply accumulating ‘sources’ and of adding incrementally to a hypothetical ‘library’ to which Shakespeare is thought to have had access. Almost half of the plays attributed to him had no independent printed existence until 1623, some seven years after his death, and so far as we know he seems to have had very little to do with the printing of those that appeared in various quartos while he was alive. Attempts to link Shakespeare with an exclusively ‘literary’ culture, emanating from the lead that Bullough provided, have proved unsatisfactory in that they do not fully account for the contingent nature of the early modern business of playwriting and performance.
Shakespeare’s resources aims to challenge the methodological foundation upon which the ‘literary’ Shakespeare is based and to propose a rethinking that situates his work on the cusp of a residual but still dynamic oral culture, and a rapidly developing culture of the book, a culture that in the early modern period was sufficiently unstable to bear the traces of its immediate pre-history.
By John Drakakis